Bank of Canada slashes key rate as economy contracts, exports stall

The Bank of Canada is cutting its key interest rate for the second time this year, citing a larger-than-expected first half contraction and a “puzzling” stall in non-energy exports.

The central bank lowered its benchmark overnight rate by a quarter percentage-point Wednesday to 0.5 per cent, blaming faltering global growth, disinflation and low prices for oil and other commodities. The Canadian dollar fell more than a cent in the wake of the decision.

The bank stopped short of characterizing the economy’s first-half stall as a recession, even a mild one. But some economists say that is exactly what Canada is facing.

The latest rate cut marks a sudden about-face by Bank of Canada Governor Stephen Poloz, who has repeatedly insisted that the economic hit from the oil price collapse would be quickly offset by surging non-oil exports, such as car parts, lumber and machinery and equipment. He had characterized his earlier January rate cut as “insurance.”

But six months later the rebound remains elusive, in spite of a much cheaper Canadian dollar, now worth less than 80 cents (U.S.).

The bank acknowledged in its latest forecast, also released Wednesday, that the failure to get a lift from non-energy exports is “puzzling.”

Making matters worse a massive plunge in business investment – down 16 per cent in the first quarter – has become a dead-weight on the economy. The bank now says it expects investment in Canada’s oil patch to plummet close to 40 per cent this year, significantly worse than the 30 per cent it initially thought, as long-term investments in the oil sands are delayed or put on hold until the price of crude comes back.

A lower overnight rate typically prompts banks to cut rates on home mortgages and other loans – a situation that could exacerbate record household debt levels in Canada and add fuel to the hot housing market in cities such as Toronto and Vancouver.

But Mr. Poloz and his central bank colleagues say the risk of weak growth and disinflation outweighs the worry that Canadians may pile on more debt.

“While vulnerabilities associated with household imbalances remain elevated and could edge higher, Canada’s economy is undergoing a significant and complex adjustment,” the bank said in its statement. “Additional monetary stimulus is required at this time to help return the economy to full capacity and inflation sustainably to target.”

The bank’s new forecast calls for a contraction in the first half of this year, with the economy shrinking at an annual rate of 0.6 per cent in the first quarter and 0.5 per cent in the second quarter. The bank does not use the word “recession,” although a recession is typically marked by two consecutive quarters of shrinking GDP.

Nonetheless, the bank said it expects growth for the entire year to hit 1.1 per cent – a sharp downgrade from the 1.9 per cent growth it forecast just three months ago. It’s calling for growth of about 2.5 per cent in 2016 and 2017.

The central bank said the Canadian economy won’t return to full capacity until the first half of 2017, versus its previous target of late 2016.

Canada’s fundamental problem is that it now has a distinctly two-track economy – one faltering badly because it’s tied to oil and other commodities, and another growing due to “solid” household spending and the recovering U.S. economy.

“As the second track gains strength and Canadian producers benefit from the depreciation of the Canadian dollar, it should re-emerge as the dominant one,” the bank said in its statement.

The non-energy economy makes up more than 80 per cent of the Canada’s GDP, but that side of the economy has been swamped by the effects of the oil price shock.

For now, the weight of the economic decline in Canada’s resource-dependent provinces is dragging on the national economy. Since last November, unemployment is up 1.3 percentage-points in the energy-intensive regions of the country, while retail sales are down nearly 1 per cent, along with steep declines in car and home sales.

It’s a vastly different picture in the rest of the country, including Ontario and Quebec, which depend more heavily on manufacturing exports.

The central bank put the blame on the U.S. and China, where growth “faltered in early 2015.” This has depressed prices for oil and many other commodities that typically drive Canada’s export-led economy.

Also Wednesday, the central bank matched the cut in the overnight rate by lowering the bank rate to 0.75 per cent from 1 per cent and the discount rate from 0.5 per cent to 0.25 per cent.

Source: BARRIE MCKENNA OTTAWA — The Globe and Mail Published Wednesday, Jul. 15, 2015 10:01AM EDT

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