The Bank of Canada has a single mandate — to ensure that inflation returns to the 2% target. This means that the Bank will raise interest rates if inflation is too high and lower interest rates if inflation is too low.
The U.S. Federal Reserve, in contrast, has a dual mandate—to maximize employment given a 2% target for inflation.
That is a subtle but meaningful difference.
July inflation data showed that the headline CPI inflation rose to 3.3%, up from 2.8% in June. One challenge in understanding year-over-year inflation data is base effects. Base effects occur when the current year’s inflation is compared to the previous year’s inflation, called the base year. If the base year has unusually high inflation, then the current year’s inflation will appear lower than it is.
For example, inflation in Canada was very high in June 2022. This means that inflation in June 2023 appeared to be lower than it is, even if there is no change in the underlying level of inflation.
Gasoline prices peaked in June 2022 and trended downward for most of the year. That makes y/y comparisons look worse starting last month. If you are only focusing on the annual change in inflation, you will be misled.
Looking at monthly changes in the headline inflation data can also be misleading because so many components of headline inflation are highly volatile. For example, monthly consumer prices in July rose 0.6% compared to only 0.1% in June. The y/y increase was smaller for core inflation measures. And if you exclude food, energy and mortgage rates, y/y inflation was quite moderate.
The main point here is that it’s complicated. I am more sanguine about last month’s inflation data than most Bay Street economists. The overall Canadian economy has slowed. Following the strong first quarter growth of 3.1%, Q2 GDP growth will likely come in at around a much more muted 1.2%. Job vacancies have fallen for a year, and the unemployment rate has risen to 5.5%–still low by historical standards but up from the record low this cycle of 4.9%.
The single major economic release ahead of the September 6 Bank of Canada policy decision is Q2 GDP, released on September 1. The BoC is expecting growth of 1.5%.
The impact on the economy of higher interest rates has a long lag. The full effects of the tightening will not be evident for a few more years. Given that most Canadian mortgage borrowers renew their mortgages every five years, the largest impact is yet to come. Nevertheless, higher interest rates have slowed the most interest-sensitive sectors.
Canadian new home prices edged down 0.1% in July, deepening the year-over-year decrease to 0.9%. In the same month, the yearly decline in the benchmark price of an existing home (as measured by the MLS HPI) eased to 1.5%. While prices for existing homes are still rising modestly, the momentum looks to have slowed as the market returns roughly to balance following the Bank’s latest two rate hikes.
Barring a massive upside surprise in Q2 GDP, the central bank will leave the policy rate unchanged at 5.0%. Longer-term market rates, however, have been rising, boosting fixed-rate mortgage yields. This results from economic and political concerns in the U.S. There is a good chance that overnight rates in Canada have peaked. If the economy remains too strong, the Bank will keep the door open for further tightening as inflation exceeds the 2% target.