The Bank of Canada is expected to hold interest rates steady one more time this week – and in doing so, separate itself further from the pack of central banks.
Economists and market watchers almost universally predict that the Bank of Canada will hold its key interest rate unchanged at 1.75 per cent in its regularly scheduled rate decision on Wednesday, thanks to continued stable Canadian economic indicators and slightly above-target inflation readings. It would mark one full year of unchanged rates for Canada’s central bank – even as other major central banks, led by the U.S. Federal Reserve, have eased rates in the face of slowing growth, slumping business investment and serious risks posed by the U.S.-China trade war.
But after a long self-imposed silence in Bank of Canada communications, observers will focus less on the decision and more on the quarterly update of the bank’s economic outlook and the post-announcement press conference with bank Governor Stephen Poloz. Those may help investors gauge how much longer the bank can resist the global momentum toward lower rates.
“It is arguably the most important [rate] announcement of the year,” Bank of Montreal chief economist Doug Porter said. “There is a lot of debate about what happens next.”
The Bank of Canada has been all but invisible since its previous rate decision in early September, as it adhered to its tradition of going quiet during federal election campaigns. So the public and financial markets have had little insight into the central bank’s thinking for nearly two months – during a period of considerable unrest for the global economy.
But Canada’s economic indicators have continued to hold up well during that time.
The Canadian labour market added a stellar 135,000 jobs in August and September, a surge that has also been accompanied by accelerating wage growth. The Canadian housing market has found renewed traction, helped by slumping bond yields over the summer that have brought about a return of lower borrowing costs, despite the steady official rates at the central bank.
Meanwhile, the Bank of Canada’s closely watched quarterly Business Outlook Survey, released the day after the federal election, indicated that Canadian business sentiment has held up relatively well in the face of the global uncertainty, which has badly hurt business confidence in many other parts of the world.
But the most positive development may be the tentative trade pact reached between the United States and China earlier this month – which, while far from resolving the two countries’ differences, has at least de-escalated the tensions that have put the global economy on edge. The deal has also helped soothe nervous stock and bond markets, removing another key risk to the interest-rate outlook.
Another stand-pat decision by the Bank of Canada would leave it increasingly at odds with the Fed, which issues its latest rate decision a few hours after Wednesday’s Bank of Canada announcement. The Fed looks poised to make its third straight quarter-percentage-point cut, to a range of 1.5 per cent to 1.75 per cent, but it’s unclear whether it has any more cuts in store after this week.
Fed chair Jerome Powell has characterized the reductions as a “mid-cycle adjustment,” and after the second cut in September, the Fed sent signals suggesting it might hit the pause button on further moves, perhaps for the rest of the year. But tepid economic data since then have persuaded the financial markets that the Fed will ease rates again; traders have priced in a near-certainty of another quarter-point cut on Wednesday.
Another cut will move the Fed’s rate below that of the Bank of Canada for the first time in nearly three years – a role reversal that won’t go unnoticed in currency markets. The divergence in policy between the Bank of Canada and other central banks has already put upward pressure on the Canadian dollar, as traders are lured by the higher returns offered in the Canadian market. The loonie is up 1.5 US cents in the past three weeks.
However, many central-bank watchers are still betting that the Bank of Canada could eventually play at least a bit of catch-up with the Fed and other global counterparts next year. They say that the modest U.S.-China trade truce won’t be enough to reverse the slowdown in global investment and trade – which is bound to wash up on Canadian shores. The financial markets have priced in a better than 50-50 chance of a rate cut by next fall.
“The global environment is no better,” Toronto-Dominion Bank chief economist Beata Caranci said. “We have some reprieve from the [U.S.-China] trade escalation, but I don’t think it has removed the business uncertainty.”