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Economy Weak readings on inflation, retail sales cast doubt on Bank of Canada’s next move

Canada’s economy showed unexpected weakness in the second quarter, recording sluggish readings for both inflation and retail sales.

The consumer price index recorded an annual pace of 2.2 per cent in May, unchanged from April and well below economist expectations for a 2.6 per cent gain, Statistics Canada said Friday. In a separate report, the Ottawa-based agency said retailers recorded a 1.2 per cent sales drop in April, also unexpected.

The reports – which come on the heels of other disappointing data – raise questions about the underlying strength of the economy and could cast some doubt about how quickly the Bank of Canada proceeds with future rate hikes.

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“The soft patch in Canadian data continued today,” Royce Mendes, an economist at CIBC World Markets, said in a note to investors.

The Canadian dollar fell after the reports, and was down 0.2 per cent to C$1.3342 per U.S. dollar at 8:38 a.m. in Toronto trading. Investors pared their expectations for rate hikes this year. Swaps trading suggests a 54 per cent probability of a hike at the Bank of Canada’s next rate decision on July 11, down from about two-thirds earlier in the day. A hike isn’t fully priced in until October, with chances of a second hike by December below 50 per cent.

As recently as last month, more than two more rate hikes had been priced in this year, adding to the three increases the Bank of Canada has already taken.

The “bad data make it even more difficult for the Bank of Canada to hike rates in July,” said Mendes. There is “still time for the data to turn” before the next rate decision with the April GDP release and June employment data due before then, he said.

Inflation surprise

The inflation numbers were a major surprise given economists were anticipating a sharp pickup in prices in May on the back of higher gasoline prices. However, a sharp decline in telephone services and cars last month acted as a brake on inflationary pressures coming from higher gas prices, the effects of minimum wage increases and higher mortgage rates.

On the month, consumer prices rose just 0.1 per cent in May, down from a 0.3 per cent gain in April and well below expectations for a 0.4 per cent gain, Statistics Canada reported.

Core measures of inflation – seen by officials as a better gauge of underlying inflation trends – posted their lowest readings since January.

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Retailers slump

The weak April retail sales numbers reflected a sharp decrease in car sales. Even excluding autos, the numbers came in below what economists were expecting. Sales excluding car dealers were down 0.1 per cent, versus economist expectations for a 0.5 per cent gain. Retail sales were also down 1.4 per cent once price changes were factored out.

One explanation for the poor retail numbers may have been poor weather, Statistics Canada said.

“Inclement weather in many parts of Canada may have contributed to the overall decline in April,” the agency said in a statement.

Nor are the inflation numbers out of line with the Bank of Canada’s own estimates. Its last forecasts – released in April projected second quarter inflation to average 2.3 per cent – and the numbers are currently on track for 2.2 per cent. That’s still a lot higher than what the nation has been able to produce recently, with inflation averaging just 1.4 per cent between 2015 and 2017.

Yet, the recent pattern has been one of weakness across the economy – which could be a concern. The poor inflation and retail sales data have come on the back of weak manufacturing sales and employment data – all within the context of growing trade worries.

Other CPI highlights

The average of the Bank of Canada’s three key core inflation measures fell to 1.9 per cent in May from 1.97 per cent in April The “common” and “median” core rates were unchanged at 1.9 per cent, while the “trim” rate fell to 1.9 per cent from 2.1 per cent Inflation for services was unchanged in May at 2.3 per cent. Goods inflation picked up to 2.2 per cent, from 2.1 per cent Seasonally adjusted inflation was 0.1 per cent in May, unchanged from a month earlier Car prices fell 1.5 per cent in May and telephone services were down 4.3 per cent, acting as the biggest downward contributors during the month.

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Other retail highlights

Sales were down in 8 of 11 subsectors tracked by Statistics Canada Ontario (down 2.3 per cent) and Quebec (down 2.7 per cent) were the biggest drivers of the decline in retail sales in April.

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