Watching the Bank of Canada's language on the economy change over the past year is like seeing a healthy, upbeat person gradually come around to the idea that a serious illness is overtaking them.
A year ago, the central bank was continuing the slow process of raising its key interest rate toward familiar levels, as the western world began to put the financial cataclysms of 2008 behind it. On Sept. 8, 2010, the target rate for overnight loans between banks rose to one per cent.
And here's how the world economy looked to the Bank of Canada — getting better, though not steadily: "The global economic recovery is proceeding but remains uneven, balancing strong activity in emerging market economies with weak growth in some advanced economies," the Bank of Canada said in September of 2010.
In their words
September 2010: "Recovery is proceeding."
October 2010: "Fiscal consolidation."
December 2010: "Sovereign debt concerns"
January 2011: " Persistent strength in the Canadian dollar."
April 2011: Investors "noticeably less risk-averse."
May 2011: "Dollar could create even greater headwinds."
July 2011: "Increased risk aversion and volatility."
September 2011: "The need to withdraw monetary policy stimulus has diminished."
And Canada's economy — buoyed by demand for commodities like oil, gas, uranium and fertilizer — was recovering: "The Bank now expects the economic recovery in Canada to be slightly more gradual than it had projected in its July Monetary Policy Report (MPR), largely reflecting a weaker profile for U.S. activity," the central bank's statement read at the time.
It was canny, however, about forecasting any further increases in rates, sensing possible trouble ahead: "Any further reduction in monetary policy stimulus would need to be carefully considered in light of the unusual uncertainty surrounding the outlook."
That was code for don't get too excited, folks: a lot could still go wrong — and it did.
Remember that for more than a year, from April 2009 to June 2010, the central bank's key rate had been 0.25 per cent — effectively zero, or maximum stimulus, as a rising Canadian dollar did some of the bank's inflation-cooling work and the world began to recover its appetite for Canadian commodities.
The bank had gradually increased its key rate over the next few months to 0.75 per cent. Then came the bump to one per cent exactly a year ago.
Since then, as Europe's debt problems have flared in Greece, Ireland, Portugal and Spain, and in some people have taken to the streets to protest government attempts to curb spending and remain solvent, the Bank of Canada's key rate has been rock steady at one per cent.
Now watch how the language has moderated, as central bank economists saw the economy flattening:
On Oct. 10, leaving the rate at one per cent, the bank said: "In advanced economies, temporary factors supporting growth in 2010 — such as the inventory cycle and pent-up demand — have largely run their course and fiscal stimulus will shift to fiscal consolidation over the projection horizon .… The combination of difficult labour market dynamics and ongoing deleveraging in many advanced economies is expected to moderate the pace of growth relative to prior expectations. These factors will contribute to a weaker-than-projected recovery in the United States in particular."
By Dec. 7, it saw recovery "largely as expected," but sounded the first note of bigger trouble ahead: "At the same time, there is an increased risk that sovereign debt concerns in several countries could trigger renewed strains in global financial markets."
No need to raise rates
On Jan. 18, 2011 — happy new year! — there were signs the economy was rebounding all too well, with government spending in the U.S. and Canada showing up in growth all over. As well, Canadian commodities remained hot sellers, pushing up the value of the Canadian dollar.
In fact, the bank said, "the cumulative effects of the persistent strength in the Canadian dollar and Canada’s poor relative productivity performance are restraining this recovery in net exports and contributing to a widening of Canada’s current account deficit to a 20-year high."
Translation: "No need to raise interest rates."
On March 1, the recovery kept pushing ahead, driven by exports, but the bank left rates unchanged, and stuck with this now-boilerplate paragraph at the end of its release: "This leaves considerable monetary stimulus in place, consistent with achieving the 2 per cent inflation target in an environment of significant excess supply in Canada. Any further reduction in monetary policy stimulus would need to be carefully considered."
Searching horizon for clouds
On April 12, the bank forecast 2.9 per cent gross domestic product growth in 2011 and 2.6 per cent in 2012 — all good, with robust spending and business investment leading investors to "become noticeably less risk-averse."
And yet, searching the horizon for clouds, the bank saw enough to stick with its boilerplate: "This leaves considerable monetary stimulus in place, consistent with achieving the 2 per cent inflation target in an environment of material excess supply in Canada. Any further reduction in monetary policy stimulus would need to be carefully considered."
By May 31, however, the bank began to see some of its more horrible imaginings coming true, and the boilerplate was dropped. Again leaving the key rate at one per cent, the bank said global inflation might be growing, but "the persistent strength of the Canadian dollar could create even greater headwinds for the Canadian economy, putting additional downward pressure on inflation through weaker-than-expected net exports and larger declines in import prices."
Stimulus might be "eventually withdrawn," it said, but "such reduction would need to be carefully considered. "
Facing a sick patient
On July 19, the bank's language noted slower-than-expected U.S. economic growth, Japan recovering at a lower-than-expected pace from its nuclear disaster, and said "widespread concerns over sovereign debt have increased risk aversion and volatility in financial markets." In other words, investors were getting jumpy about how Europe might pull itself together without major defaults and weakened currency."
And on Wednesday, laying out all the factors that are besetting global growth and the Canadian economy, the bank finally sounded a doctor facing a sick patient.
It didn't explicitly suggest returning to more stimulus (lowering interest rates), as some economists had forecast it might, but the bank no longer expected to withdraw economic stimulus:
"In light of slowing global economic momentum and heightened financial uncertainty, the need to withdraw monetary policy stimulus has diminished. The Bank will continue to monitor carefully economic and financial developments in the Canadian and global economies, together with the evolution of risks, and set monetary policy consistent with achieving the 2 per cent inflation target over the medium term."