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Raise or sit tight? Economists evenly divided about what Bank of Canada will do to rates today

As the Bank of Canada gets set to announce its latest decision on interest rates, opinion is split on what the central bank is going to do — much less what it should do.

Spectre of rate hike today has risen since last week's GDP numbers suggesting booming economy

Governor of the Bank of Canada Stephen Poloz is widely expected to raise rates again before the end of the year. But some experts think that could happen as soon as today. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

As the Bank of Canada gets set to announce its latest decision on interest rates, opinion is split on what the central bank is going to do — much less what it should do.

After the last rate hike in July — the bank's first in seven years — futures contracts implied that traders thought there was a little better than a one in three chance of a rate hike today.

But those odds slowly ticked lower as the housing market showed signs of wobbling, and the loonie took flight, rising from about 77 cents the day before the July 12 decision to over 80 cents by the end of the month.

All things being equal, a higher loonie gives the central bank less impetus to raise rates and put a lid on inflation. So the loonie's rise over the past six weeks has taken away some of the need for the bank to hike again.

As recently as a week ago, the odds of a hike today were down to just over one in four. Then Canadian GDP numbers came out on Thursday showing the economy had it's strongest first half to the year in a decade and a half, and suddenly to odds spiked again, to just over one in two before the long weekend. As of Tuesday morning, traders were pegging the chance of a hike at just over 40 per cent.

Currency traders who bet on price movements think it's about a coin toss as to what the central bank is going to do today. And economists who get paid to think about it are about equally split.

BMO economist Benjamin Reitzes is among those who'd be surprised to see a hike. His main reason for thinking so is the cone of silence that has descended over the bank since July. Contrast that with what happened in the run-up to that decision, where they seemed to be going out of their way to telegraph their intent ahead of time. 

"Since July 12 we've heard nothing from the Bank of Canada, in stark contrast to their significant efforts to signal the July hike," Reitzes said.

He adds that both governor Stephen Poloz and deputy governor Carolyn Wilkins have said they don't want to slam on the brakes by hiking too fast, "and hiking in back-to-back meetings would certainly seem like slamming on the brakes," Reitzes said. 

But the best argument against a hike today, Reitzes said, is a bit of a technicality.

While the bank meets eight times a year to settle on its benchmark interest rate, only every other meeting — once every three months — does the bank come out with a quarterly Monetary Policy Report, which explains in detail the bank's view on the economy.

The MPR release also comes with a press conference, where reporters can ask questions, and the bank has ample opportunity to lay out its reasoning.

That's not happening today, which is why Reitzes thinks the bank will hold off on another hike until they can fully explain their reasoning at the next MPR in October. "Effectively communicating that the bank isn't going to be more aggressive in just a few hundred words if they hike will be exceptionally difficult," Reitzes said.

"We continue to look for a hike in October," Reitzes said, "and will provide ample opportunity for Governor Poloz to massage expectations."

Others aren't quite as convinced.

Economist Derek Holt at Scotiabank is among those expecting a hike today. "The weakest argument I've heard against hiking tomorrow is that the Bank of Canada needs to set it up first and then go in October," Hold said. He added that the bank's statements earlier this summer gave ample reason for hikes to come. "Having to hold hands ahead of a rate move hasn't been governor Poloz's style to date anyway."

Role of U.S. policy

While policy watchers pore over the central bank's every pronouncement, ultimately the biggest factor in Canadian monetary policy may be completely out of the Bank of Canada's control anyway.

American policymakers are yet again rattling sabres about shutting down the U.S. government in the fall, as part of a complex dispute about the debt ceiling, tax cuts and funding a border wall the U.S. president desperately wants.

If the Bank of Canada has another rate hike in it, economist David Madani at Capital Economics says it would be well served to roll it out ahead of any U.S. shutdown shenanigans, so the impact would be easier to absorb and gauge.

"A partial shutdown of the U.S. government in early October is all but inevitable at this stage," Madani said, "so [Wednesday] might be a better opportunity for the Bank to raise interest rates again, rather than waiting until 25th October when financial markets could still be recovering from a particularly disruptive debt ceiling stand-off."

It's why Madani's among those who think a rate is coming today. But unlike some of his compatriots elsewhere, he doesn't think higher rates will last.

"Regardless of whether they increase rates by 25 basis points to 1 per cent [on Wednesday] or in October, as financial markets expect, this will likely be the last rate increase for the year," he said.

"Early next year, we expect fears of a major housing correction to begin to weigh much more heavily on economic growth, eventually prompting the Bank to cut interest rates."

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