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This week: Reading interest-rate tea leaves

Bank of Canada Governor Mark Carney leaves following a news conference in Ottawa, Nov. 26, 2012.


Mark Carney and the Bank of Canada may still be basking in the glow of international attention after last week's big job move by the governor, but they will have to get back to work this week with the mundane task of setting this country's interest rates.

The bank's interest rate policy statement, set for 9 a.m. (ET) Tuesday, is universally expected to leave the target for the overnight rate at 1 per cent, where it has been for more than two years.

But that won't stop analysts from an intense reading of the accompanying document to see if there has been any change in the bank's thinking about which direction rates will move in the longer term.

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The central bank indicated earlier this year that it is leaning towards raising rates slightly some time next year, a message meant to encourage households to keep a lid on their borrowing.

But the weakening economy could cause the bank to change its language slightly, if not at this week's setting perhaps as early as January.

The disappointing 0.6 per cent third-quarter GDP growth rate, released by Statistics Canada on Friday, will put pressure on the Bank of Canada to drop its "tightening bias," said David Madani, an economist at Capital Economics in Toronto, even though that shift won't likely happen this week.

The concern over household debt is the reason "the tightening bias is lingering for a bit longer than some people might think," Mr. Madini said, but "no one in the financial markets really takes it that seriously."

He thinks the Bank of Canada may change its view by the spring of 2013.

If the economy is still weak then, the bank could consider lowering rates slightly to add some more stimulus.

Any hint of this, however, may not become apparent until January, when the central bank will publish its next monetary policy report, which will include a more detailed update of its economic outlook.

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By March the bank will have seen the fourth quarter GDP numbers, Mr. Madani said, "and my anticipation is that they will also be a bit disappointing. [That might] be enough to swing the pendulum the other way. I think they are just looking for more evidence before they would pull the plug completely on the tightening bias."

Avery Shenfeld, chief economist at CIBC World Markets, said he too thinks that economic growth is too weak for the Bank of Canada to think about raising interest rates any time soon.

But he also said the slack in the economy isn't enough to prompt it to lower rates either. He said the bank will likely emphasize that the 1 per cent overnight rate is already "highly stimulative."

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