Bank of Canada ends QE bond buying program, a sign that higher rates are coming

Canada's central bank is keeping its benchmark policy interest rate right where it is, but is signalling that higher rates are coming soon.

Bank holds benchmark rate steady, but winds down quantitative easing program

Tiff Macklem, governor of the Bank of Canada, says he expects inflation to be higher than previously anticipated, for longer. (Sean Kilpatrick/Bloomberg)

Canada's central bank is keeping its benchmark policy interest rate right where it is, but is signalling that higher rates are coming soon.

In its latest policy decision, the Bank of Canada opted Wednesday to hold its benchmark rate steady at 0.25 per cent, the same level it has been throughout the pandemic.

The bank slashed its rate in March 2020 to stimulate the economy by making it as cheap as possible to borrow and invest.

While holding that rate steady, the bank's statement does make it clear that it's getting ready to raise that rate sooner rather than later as the economy gets back on to its own two feet and the cost of living is increasing at a faster pace than expected.

"The main forces pushing up prices — higher energy prices and pandemic-related supply bottlenecks — now appear to be stronger and more persistent than expected," the bank said, adding that it now thinks Canada's multi-year high inflation rate will go higher still — topping out at about five per cent, the bank said — before coming back down to the range of about two per cent next year.

"In other words, we continue to expect that inflation will ease back but relative to our July forecast, it's higher for longer," bank governor Tiff Macklem said at a press conference after the release of the rate decision.

Normally, higher than expected inflation is the sort of thing that would compel a central bank to hike its interest rate to cool things down. But the bank isn't doing that because stimulus is still needed to get out of the pandemic hole that the economy fell into last year.

While the bank makes it clear it's not ready to raise its benchmark rate yet, it gave a clear signal that it is headed in that direction by winding down its so-called quantitative easing program, one that saw the bank buy up as much as $5 billion worth of government bonds every week to keep lending cheap.

What is QE and how does it work?

Quantitative easing or QE works by having a central bank buy up large amounts of government bonds, which pushes up the price of those bonds since there is a sudden and sustainable surge in demand for them.

That in turn drags down their yield or the rate of interest attached to them, which has the effect of bringing down the cost of all sorts of things linked to government bond yields, including some mortgages and business loans.

Like many central banks around the world, the Bank of Canada implemented a bond-buying QE program to help stimulate the economy during the pandemic. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Governments around the world implemented QE programs throughout last year as a way to squeeze as much stimulus into the system, even after they slashed their lending rates to basically zero.

As Canada's economy has slowly improved through 2021, the bank has slowly wound down the number of bonds it was buying under the program, and on Wednesday announced it would come to an end entirely.

"The significant stimulus remains in place … we're just not adding to it," Macklem said.

That's a sign that the bank is getting ready to raise rates. Economists think there could be as many as four rate hikes by the end of next year.

"We expect the Bank will raise rates three times next year, taking the overnight rate to 1 per cent by the end of 2022," economist Sri Thanabalasingam with TD Bank said. "Inflation is heating up, and it would be prudent to remove some monetary stimulus as the economy continues down the road to recovery."

Doug Porter with Bank of Montreal thinks there will be more hikes than that.

"The key overnight lending rate was again held at 0.25 per cent, but almost every other aspect of the release was a fire-breathing blast of concern on the inflation backdrop," he said.

"For now, we would assume that rate hikes progress quarterly until late 2023, bringing the overnight rate back in line with pre-pandemic levels two years hence."

The Canadian dollar jumped on the news, gaining about two thirds of a cent to trade at 81.35 cents US.

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