Bank of Canada keeps 1% rate as cheap oil, debt risks offset healing economy

OTTAWA – The Bank of Canada says the country’s economic positives have largely offset the negatives, a balance that led governor Stephen Poloz to maintain the trend-setting interest rate Wednesday at one per cent.

On the plus side, the central bank pointed to an increase in exports thanks to an improved U.S. economy — a boost that has also led to more business investment and jobs in Canada.

But it also warned of lurking threats: sliding oil prices and high household debt. That indebtedness, it cautioned, presents a “significant risk to financial stability.”

Still, even though the bank sees balance in the risks, it acknowledged that sunnier data on Canada’s recent economic performance indicates the country is emerging from the darkness.

“Canada’s economy is showing signs of a broadening recovery,” the bank said in the statement that accompanied the rate announcement.

“Stronger exports are beginning to be reflected in increased business investment and employment. This suggests that the hoped-for sequence of rebuilding that will lead to balanced and self-sustaining growth may finally have begun.”

Several economists say they picked up on a slightly more serious tone from the bank regarding household imbalances, or debt.

Michael Gregory, deputy chief economist for BMO Capital Markets, said consumer spending has remained strong in Canada and the housing market has proven to be much more resilient in some regions.

“Before, these were risks that were edging up and now I guess they’ve edged up to the point that they have become ‘significant,'” said Gregory.

A separate report released Wednesday by consumer credit rating agency Equifax Canada found the collective debt of Canadians was up 7.4 per cent from a year ago — to more than $1.5 trillion.

Nearly two-thirds of it, or $985.1 billion, is mortgage debt. Excluding mortgages, Equifax said Canadians owed an average of $20,891.

National Bank senior economist Krishen Rangasamy agreed the bank appeared to send a stronger warning on household debt than its last interest-rate announcement in October.

But Rangasamy doesn’t think it means Poloz is looking to raise interest rates in the near future.

Perhaps, he added, it’s a veiled plea to Ottawa to introduce new measures aimed at curbing debt accumulation.

“(The Bank of Canada) didn’t say it explicitly in the statement, but I think by saying that financial stability risks are significant in Canada, it’s basically calling for help from Ottawa,” said Rangasamy, who pointed to past steps taken by the Conservative government to tighten rules on mortgage down payments.

However, on Wednesday evening, Poloz said the choice to use the word “significant” in the announcement did not reflect increasing concern by the bank.

The governor told an audience in Toronto that he didn’t have any new data for household imbalances since the release of the October statement. Poloz also noted the bank used the word significant to describe the vulnerability earlier this year.

“There’s no change in the importance of that issue to be seen in that word significant,” Poloz said during a question-and-answer discussion at an event hosted by The Economist magazine.

“I don’t normally like to parse these things, but that just shows you how important one word can be.”

Poloz was also asked about Canada’s improving economic situation.

“We do think that the pieces we’ve been watching for have begun to fall into place, and I’m really careful to say it’s not done and we need many months of this before we’re confident,” he said.

The key policy rate hasn’t budged since September 2010 and has helped keep borrowing rates at historic lows. Economists expect the rate to stay where it is until at least mid or late 2015.

Evidence of an improving economy has appeared in the data since the central bank’s last interest-rate announcement in October. At the time, it called underlying inflationary pressures “muted” and said the inflation projection was “roughly balanced.”

Since then, the unemployment rate dipped to 6.5 per cent and the pace of GDP growth climbed to 2.8 per cent in the third quarter — half-a-percentage-point higher than the bank had expected.

Fresh figures have also pointed to a faster-than-anticipated growth for inflation.

The bank acknowledged Wednesday that inflation had climbed faster than expected, but it described the increase as “temporary effects” of a lower Canadian dollar and price jumps in certain consumer sectors, such as telecommunications and meat.

It also said the output gap appeared to be smaller than it had predicted in its October monetary policy report. The bank noted, though, that there was still significant slack in the economy.

In addition to household debt, the announcement listed weaker oil prices as a downside risk to inflation.

In October, Poloz warned if the low oil prices lingered at depressed levels they could cut the growth of Canada’s GDP by a quarter-point next year.

After making the remarks to the Senate banking committee, Poloz noted the central bank had used a price of US$85 a barrel to produce its estimate. Since then, the price of oil has dropped below US$70.

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