Gloom over debts and NAFTA threats trounced by 'positive surprises': Don Pittis

The Bank of Canada's leaders say NAFTA and Canadians' debt keep them awake at night. But they say a string of positive surprises like rising wages and business investment outweigh those risks.

Growing employment, higher wages and increased investment mean a rate hike is sign of better times

NAFTA and household debt keep Bank of Canada senior deputy governor Carolyn Wilkins, left, and governor Stephen Poloz awake at night. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

It will likely be a hard sell for Canadians pinched by another increase in debt payments, but the Bank of Canada says yesterday's interest rate hike was a cheerful sign for the economy.

Inevitably, the quarter point increase had an immediate and significant impact on Canadians with variable rate loans and lines of credit.

Bank of Canada governor Stephen Poloz and his senior deputy, Carolyn Wilkins, didn't deny that impact in their news conference yesterday. It forms the basis of one of their biggest worries. 

Danger of debt and NAFTA

The danger of shocks to an economy dependent on debt and the threat implied by the potential collapse of the North American Free Trade Agreement can't be ignored, they said.

But the reason for a rate hike should not be ignored either. And that is a flood of good news expected to continue to benefit Canadians as the economy strengthens.

The dangers of NAFTA's potential collapse may be the stuff of nightmares for some, but the impact of trade deals on various parts of the economy is notoriously difficult to predict. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

"There's no question that the data on balance since October has been stronger than our base case," Poloz told a gathering of financial reporters yesterday. "Given that the string of positive surprises has encouraged us in the underlying narrative, we're feeling more confident in the outlook." 

That said, of course, it was interesting to hear how the Bank of Canada's two senior people responded to a reporter's question about what keeps them awake at night.

The stuff of nightmares 

Poloz went first and confessed that trade and the potential loss of NAFTA was one of the things that made him lose sleep. And indeed the bank's monetary policy report warns that the reversal of decades of more open trade would hurt Canada.

"The prospect of a notable shift toward protectionist global trade policies remains the most important risk surrounding the outlook," the report says.

But in his discussion of the trade issue, Poloz insisted NAFTA isn't an on-off switch for the Canadian economy. The deal alone isn't the difference between doom and a secure economic future.

And although he didn't mention President Donald Trump by name, Poloz observed that U.S. actions were hard to predict and that "we cannot presume it will be a small shock."

While he said most economists agree Canadians and Americans would be better off with free trade, the exact implications to individual industries are impossible to know in advance, just as we discovered when everyone was making predictions about the effects of the first Canada-U.S. free trade deal in the late 1980s.

Experts predicted the original Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement would kill Canada's wine industry, but it grew instead. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

"The Canadian wine business was going to be wiped out by the trade agreement," Poloz said. "Well, look what we have today!"

The more immediate impact of the uncertainty over NAFTA, Poloz said, is that Canadian businesses continue to delay some of their investment decisions until they see what happens. They are investing plenty, but the bank's surveys show they would invest more if they knew NAFTA was secure.

 After outlining his worst nightmare, Poloz turned the question over to his senior deputy.

Household debt, obviously

"There's one thing you didn't mention, maybe because it is so obvious," Wilkins said. "And that's really household debt that's keeping me up at night."

For heavily indebted Canadians, yesterday's increase, coming so soon after two similar quarter point hikes last summer, will make a hole in their budgets. Expectations of two more hikes this year means interest payments will be sharply higher than they were just a year ago.

That tells us a bigger share of household budgets will move to loan repayments. At the same time, higher rates will likely reduce the number of people borrowing against their houses. Both those things could impact the growth of consumer spending.

Wilkins says household debt keeps her up at night, but maybe not for the reason you might think. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

But interestingly that is not the stuff of Wilkins's nightmares. The scary thing, she says, is if external factors — similar to the oil price crash that happened earlier this decade — were to suddenly hit the Canadian economy. Being so heavily indebted would compound the impact on Canadians.

"It's just the vulnerability we would face if we had a shock," she said.

The reason Wilkins is worried about an economic shock and not about the effects of a gradual increase in interest rates is that the overall economy is healthy and growing.

Despite a pullback by the most indebted, consumer confidence is growing. Unemployment is falling as the economy creates more good jobs than expected. Wages are rising slightly faster than inflation. Productivity — the value of goods and services created with every unit of labour — while not stellar, is going up.

Rates still historically low

There are plenty of other positive signs. Europe and other Canadian trade partners are showing strength. 

Despite squabbling over trade, the economy of the U.S., Canada's biggest trade partner of all, continues to surge. It, too, is putting more of its people to work, expanding capacity as it draws discouraged workers back into the active labour force.

​In Canada, says Poloz, there are signs the same thing is beginning to happen as businesses invest in new commercial buildings and equipment.

And despite the rise in rates, Canadian interest is still what the bank calls "accommodative," meaning rates are still stimulating the economy as it uses up excess capacity, and borrowing is still a bargain compared to how much money you can earn with the money you borrow. 

"Everybody's better off with a strong economy," Poloz said. "A stronger economy means interest rates can move a little closer to something more normal, in a context where everybody's better off."

Follow Don on Twitter @don_pittis

More analysis from Don Pittis


Don Pittis

Business columnist

Don Pittis 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. He is currently senior producer at CBC's business unit.


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