'Barnburner' GDP reading expected for 1st quarter

Figures for the January-March period are due to be released by Statistics Canada on Wednesday morning, with some economists predicting the reading could show an annualized growth rate approaching five per cent.

Observers look to March reading for early indications of Q2 growth

Strong auto sales are forecast to have given a solid boost to the Canadian economy in the first three months of this year, economists say. (Canadian Press)

The Canadian economy is widely expected to have roared out the gate in the first quarter with a "fantastic" start to the year.

Figures for the January-March period are due to be released by Statistics Canada on Wednesday morning, with many economists predicting the reading will come in somewhere between 3.5 per cent and five per cent, on a quarter-over-quarter annualized rate.

CIBC Capital Markets chief economist Avery Shenfeld said the report will be "nothing short of a barnburner."

Scotiabank is projecting a growth rate of just under five per cent.

"If that happens — or anywhere close to it — then Canada will have led the world's advanced economies on growth to start 2017, albeit amidst frustrating evidence that hopes for a global acceleration are so far being dashed," Scotiabank said in a recent commentary.

If growth for the quarter reaches about 4.7 per cent, Scotiabank said that would mark almost six years since the Canadian economy grew at an equal or greater pace, alluding to the 5.7 per cent growth rate witnessed back in the third quarter of 2011. 

TD is looking for a four-per-cent growth figure, propelled by growth in consumer activity. The bank said strength is expected in durable goods spending — up by 12.5 per cent — thanks to strong auto sales during the quarter.

BMO Capital Markets chief economist Douglas Porter said Canada is now on track to post GDP growth of around 2.5 per cent in 2017, topping the bank's upwardly revised forecast for U.S. growth of 2.2 per cent.

"It's pretty safe to say that no major forecaster was looking for Canada to outpace the U.S. at the start of this year," Porter said in a commentary.

Eyes on Q2

Observers will also be looking to the March GDP figure to give an early indication of how the current quarter may be shaping up.

CIBC Capital Markets economists are projecting month-over-month growth of 0.3 per cent for March, based on healthy retail activity and cooler weather that is forecast to have boosted utilities output.

Not all forecasts for March are so optimistic, with TD expecting growth of 0.1 per cent for the month. Economists at the bank say a soft report for March "should provide a relatively weak handoff to [the second quarter], where we expect growth to moderate to a mid-two per cent pace."

Central bank implications

A strong start to the year economically would influence when the Bank of Canada decides it needs to boost interest rates, economists say.

"Everyone will anticipate at least some moderation [in second-quarter GDP], but the degree of any pullback in growth will be one factor in whether the Bank of Canada can or should wait until 2018 before hiking rates." Shenfeld said.

​TD economists said that with excess capacity in the economy quickly being absorbed, a rate hike by the Bank of Canada is likely to happen as early as the second quarter of 2018.

On May, 24, Canada's central bank kept its target for the overnight rate steady at 0.5 per cent, the same level it's been at since the middle of 2015, with the bank saying it didn't see a need to add or reduce monetary stimulus.