Bank of Canada's Poloz might be spooked by an unnatural economy: Don Pittis

Many Canadians with high debt loads fear the potential impact of interest rate hikes. Given some strange factors in the economy, it's difficult to predict when the next hike might come.

Bank holds interest rates and expects 'deviations in behaviour' in 'different from normal' economy

Poloz says only careful examination of economic data as it comes in will determine when interest rates rise next. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Borrowers and homeowners haunted by thoughts of another hike in interest rates just days before Halloween may have been reassured to hear Bank of Canada governor Stephen Poloz held rates steady yesterday.

But those hoping for a simple answer on the trajectory of future interest rates have every reason to remain unnerved.

Only days before the little ghosts and goblins walk the streets, our chief central banker declared economic conditions to be distinctly abnormal.

Uncanny economy

While Poloz and his deputy, Carolyn Wilkins, painted a revealing picture of the bank's behind-the-scenes thinking on Canada's economic future, their image showed they and their advisers remain baffled by the peculiar persistence of low inflation and static wages in this strengthening economy. 

"When you're in a situation that's different from normal — which we are — you use your models as a guide but you expect deviations in behaviour relative to those models," Poloz said.

"The question is, how much of a deviation?"

Even at the best of times, trying to model the future of an economy that's constantly changing must be a frightening task.

Minister of Finance Bill Morneau, pictured, included some stimulative spending plans in his fall fiscal update that could affect Bank of Canada governor Stephen Poloz's future decisions on interest rates. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Only the day before Poloz spoke, Finance Minister Bill Morneau made changes of his own that could add to future inflation, using his fall fiscal update to increase the low income tax credit and increase child benefits.

Several reporters seemed to be tempting Poloz into a conflict with Morneau at yesterday's news conference.

Poloz refused to be drawn, stubbornly keeping central bank policy and politics apart.

While one must accept the idea that central bankers must avoid stepping into politics, monetary and fiscal policy cannot be divorced.

Spooky interaction

The fascinating thing about trying to understand economic and monetary policy is that the whole system is a series of interlocked feedback loops, like an occult Rube Goldberg machine, where adjusting one small part changes the entire pattern.

A case in point was the rise of the Canadian dollar, which Wilkins said had a significant effect on inflation. But it seems just talking about it had an effect yesterday. Minutes after the bank released its monetary policy report, the loonie began to plunge, at one point down nearly a full U.S. cent.

Poloz and his deputy, Carolyn Wilkins, walk through autumn leaves on their way to answer questions about yesterday's monetary policy report. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

But in "different from normal" times, keeping up with such changes isn't the only difficulty for Poloz, Wilkins and their team.

One of those differences they described was the high level of debt that could make the entire Canadian economy more sensitive to small changes in interest rates than it would be under normal conditions.

"When households are more indebted, what happens is that any particular increase in interest rates is going to have a bit more of an impact on the amount of money they have at the end of the day to spend on other things," Wilkins explained. 

"The ability of households to borrow more money to get more credit to buy new things is also going to be more constrained," she said. That's significant in an economy where borrowing has become an unusually important part of retail and real estate sales.

Eerie inflation

Another strange thing about the current economic picture is that inflation, not just in Canada but around the world, remains mysteriously low, Poloz said. The bank now expects inflation won't hit its two per cent target range until the second half of next year, cooling market expectations for immediate interest rate hikes.

The other uncanny factor being pondered by the bank is why wages remain persistently low. This may be partly due to the chilling effect of a long period of underemployment, which could also help hold rates down. As those underemployed or discouraged workers get drawn into the economy by businesses seeking to expand, the economy's capacity actually grows.

That's what the governor has characterized as the "sweet spot," where the economy is able to grow without forcing the central bank to raise rates.

If that turns out to be true, that's good news for Canadian borrowers.

But asked directly whether interest rates, and thus mortgage rates, would go up in December, Poloz was as cagey as ever, hinting a rate rise could be delayed by nine months or come as soon as December.

"The homeowner should acknowledge," he said, "that if the economy continues to do well, as it has been, less monetary stimulus is likely to be needed in the future."

Translation? If the economy remains strong, expect rates to rise.

For underemployed people looking for good work, for large and small businesses, and for the sake of Canada's economic future, such continued strength would be a treat.

But for the one in three Canadians already feeling the pinch of higher interest rates, it could be a personal nightmare.

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Don Pittis

Business columnist

Based in Toronto, Don Pittis is a business columnist and senior producer for CBC News. Previously, he was a forest firefighter, and a ranger in Canada's High Arctic islands. After moving into journalism, he was principal business reporter for Radio Television Hong Kong before the handover to China. He has produced and reported for the CBC in Saskatchewan and Toronto and the BBC in London.