Jonathan Silveira

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The Bank of Canada left the overnight benchmark policy rate at 1-3/4%, as expected. In another dovish statement, the Bank of Canada acknowledged a slowdown in global economic activity and highlighted that oil prices are roughly 25% lower than what they had assumed in the October Monetary Policy Report (MPR). The lower prices primarily reflected sustained increases in U.S. oil supply and increased worries about global demand, especially in light of a potential U.S.-China trade war (see oil chart below).


The Bank also commented that these worries had been mirrored in bond and stock markets. Credit spreads off Treasuries have widened, and stock markets have sold off around the world (see chart below). Equity prices and bond yields have declined in the face of market unease over global growth. Volatility has risen, and corporate credit spreads have widened sharply. A tightening of corporate credit conditions is particularly evident in the North American energy sector reflecting the decline in oil prices. 


Weak oil prices negatively impact the Canadian economic outlook and “transportation constraints and rising production have combined to push up oil inventories in the west and exert even more downward pressure on Canadian benchmark prices. While price differentials have narrowed in recent weeks following announced mandatory production cuts in Alberta, investment in Canada’s oil sector is projected to weaken further.” 


The Bank acknowledged that the economy is running close to potential, unemployment is at a 40-year low and trade will likely improve with the weak dollar, the trade deal with Mexico and the U.S. (now dubbed “CUSMA”) and federal tax measures to target investment. Nevertheless, consumer spending and housing investment “have been weaker than expected as housing markets adjust to to municipal and provincial measures, changes to mortgage guidelines, and higher interest rates. Household spending will be dampened further by slow growth in oil-producing provinces.”


The contribution to average annual real economic growth from housing investment has been revised down to -0.1% this year from the +0.1% forecast in October. 


The Bank of Canada revised down its forecast for real GDP growth in 2019 to 1.7%–0.4 percentage points lower than the October outlook. According to the Bank, “This will open up a modest amount of excess capacity, primarily in oil-producing regions. Nevertheless, indicators of demand should start to show renewed momentum in early 2019, leading to above-potential growth of 2.1% in 2020.”


Inflation remains close to 2%, the central bank’s target, having fallen to 1.7% in November, due to lower gasoline prices. While low gasoline prices will depress inflation this year, the weak Canadian dollar will have an offsetting impact on the CPI. On balance, the bank sees inflation returning to around 2% by late this year.


Considering all of these factors, the Governing Council continues to judge that the benchmark policy rate will need to rise over time to a neutral range to achieve the inflation target. “The appropriate pace of rate increases will depend on how the outlook evolves, with a particular focus on developments in oil markets, the Canadian housing market, and global trade policy.”


Bottom Line: The Bank of Canada for the first time admits in today’s MPR that the slowdown in the housing market has been more dramatic than the Bank’s staff had expected. The January MPR states, “provincial and municipal housing market policies, the tighter mortgage finance guidelines and higher mortgage rates continue to weigh on housing activity. Slowing of activity in some markets has been associated with less speculative activity. As a result, it is difficult to evaluate the sensitivity of non-speculative demand to the various policy changes. Monthly indicators have signalled that spending on housing likely contracted again in the fourth quarter. Weaker-than-expected housing activity in recent months and staff analysis suggest that the combined effect of tighter mortgage guidelines and higher interest rates has been larger than previously estimated. The Bank will continue to monitor developments in housing markets to assess how construction is adjusting to the shift in demand toward lower-value units.”


The Bank see less urgency to raise interest rates as the economy copes with slumping oil prices and weak housing markets. The five interest rate hikes since mid-2017 are having a more substantial impact on spending than the Bank expected. A short-term pause in rate hikes is now likely. The economy slowed considerably in the fourth quarter of last year, which will continue in the first quarter of this year owing to the decline in oil prices and the Alberta government’s implemented oil production cuts.


While it is unlikely that the Bank is finished its tightening this cycle, expect rates to remain steady until we see solid evidence of a rebound in the oil sector and in housing as interest-rate sensitivity of Canadians is at historical highs

 



By Dr. Sherry Cooper | Chief Economist, Dominion Lending Centres



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At the start of every New Year, pundits posit the forecast as everyone wonders what the year will bring. While no one has a crystal ball, here are some fundamentals at play this year:


1). Canada’s economy will continue to under perform the U.S. as growth slows to 1-3/4% in 2019 compared to just over 2% in 2018. For the U.S., where budget deficits have been rising sharply with the 2018 tax cuts, growth this year will hit about 2.4% compared to nearly 3% last year–an over-heated economy to say the least.


2.) Canada’s population growth will lead the G7 by a wide margin. In 2018, Canada’s population was on track to increase 1.4%, the most robust pace in 18 years and double the 0.7% rate for the U.S., which was the G7 country with the next-highest population growth rate. Despite this, spending did not rise —auto sales fell on an annual basis for the first time since 2009, while home sales had their second biggest slide in the past 20 years. Per capita GDP growth in Canada this year will under perform most of the G7.


Strong (net) immigration accounted for almost half (45%) of Canada’s population increase last year. That contribution will only grow since Ottawa has committed to boosting its annual immigration target from 310,000 new permanent residents in 2018 to 331,000 this year (up 6.7%) and to 350,000 by 2021. About two-thirds of 2019’s expansion will come from the immigration programs that target highly skilled workers aimed at addressing labour shortages across Canada.


As well, the number of non-permanent residents reached an all-time high of 166,000 last year accounting for one-third of the growth in the population. This group includes temporary foreign workers, international students and asylum seekers. All three categories soared, reflecting strong demand for skilled labour, Canada’s growing reputation as a desirable place to obtain post-secondary education, and increases in cross-border refugee claimants.


3.) Canadian consumers are tapped out as debt levels remain high, interest rates edging upward and credit is less readily available. Boomers are wary that their homes are worth less than what they were counting on as Canada’s two largest housing markets experienced decade-low sales last year with softer prices especially at the pricier end of the single-family home market. First-time buyers might have more homes to choose from in some markets, but regulators have tightened qualification rules. Foreign buying has slowed owing to foreign purchaser taxes in Toronto and Vancouver and speculation taxes in Vancouver.


4.) The Fed and the Bank of Canada will raise rates in 2019 by more than the market currently expects. Market participants in recent weeks have reduced expectations for rate hikes by both central banks to barely one increase apiece. More likely, both the Fed and the BoC will raise the benchmark overnight rate twice each this year. Even with these actions, monetary policy in both countries will be slightly accommodating with interest rates still below neutral levels.


5.) Even with only modest rate increases in 2019, consumers will be impacted because they are so heavily exposed to debt. Economists at the Royal Bank estimate that the average household faces a $1,000 hit from rate hikes. This would imply that the average household principal and interest payment will increase by 7.6% in 2019.


6.) This effect will be offset by stronger wage growth as labour markets continue to tighten. Labour shortages will finally add to wage growth. The unemployment rate hit a record low in December, yet wage growth had slowed to only 1.5% year-over-year, well below inflation. Over the next decade, more than 270,000 people will retire from the Canadian labour market every year. Immigrants and temporary workers will replace some of these retirees, but not all.


Recent data suggest that the quit rate–the proportion of the labour force that leaves their jobs voluntarily–is rising. This portends higher wage rates going forward.


7.) Rising interest rates will squeeze government spending for the feds and provinces with significant debt loads. Ottawa will spend more on debt payments than any other program except elderly benefits.


8.) Corporate balance sheets will be negatively impacted by higher interest rates as Canadian companies borrowed more heavily than their international counterparts. Canadian companies remain less competitive as their productivity growth has lagged their global competitors. Efforts to improve Canadian competitiveness are in process but have yet to show meaningful results. This has been a secular problem for Canada.


9.) Canada could be caught in the crosshairs of a U.S.-China trade war, but free-trade deals with Europe (CETA) and China (CPTPP) will reap benefits, particularly as the U.S. continues to alienate many of its allies and trading partners. Canada must diversify trade away from the U.S., particularly in the oil sector, which requires massive infrastructure spending. No longer can we count on exports of oil and transportation products to the U.S. to be the mainstay of Canadian global trade.


10). Comparable to last year, housing in 2019 will not fuel Canada’s national economy, thanks to macroprudential policy measures and modestly higher interest rates. Housing accounted for a record-high percentage of overall economic growth and job creation until early last year.We are barely off those peak levels now, so any slowdown in housing activity will have a disproportionately large negative impact on the economy–the flip side of its disproportionate expansionary impact over much of the prior decade.


Bottom Line: Sales to new listings have stabilized in Toronto, but continue to decline in Vancouver. Population growth in Vancouver has under performed Toronto’s for two years, while supply, mainly in the high-rise segment, has risen sharply. In consequence, the number of completed and unabsorbed units in Vancouver continues to increase, while that measure is still trending downward in Toronto. The sector of most significant weakness in Toronto will continue to be in the pre-sale low-rise market where there remains considerable excess supply.


By Dr. Sherry Cooper | Chief Economist, Dominion Lending Centres

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