Soaring Food Prices, Surging Jobs Could Put Pressure On Bank Of Canada To Return To Rate Hikes


Public outrage over a continued rise in grocery prices this week and the prospect of a strong jobs report may be signs that the Bank of Canada has not yet finished hiking interest rates.

Speaking to the Manitoba Chambers of Commerce on Thursday in her hometown of Winnipeg, the Bank of Canada’s senior deputy governor, Carolyn Rogers, implied that despite the bank’s pause this week, there may be higher interest rates ahead.

“We can all agree, inflation is still too high,” Rogers told the business audience. “It’s come down a bit, but at 5.9 per cent, we have a long way to go to get back to the two per cent target.”

‘Bank’s pause is on shaky ground’

While the deputy governor held to the recent Bank of Canada forecast that the inflation rate would hit three per cent this year and be right on target at two per cent by 2024, some of those listening to her speech sensed she was hinting those goals were optimistic if interest rates don’t rise further.

“It looks like the central bank’s pause is on shaky ground and it wouldn’t take all that much additional evidence to spur them back into action,” Desjardins economist Royce Mendes said in a note a few minutes after Rogers spoke.

Addressing the difficulty of battling inflation in the face of a still-strong jobs market where wages are outpacing productivity — with the danger of imported inflation from our biggest trading partners and on the prospect that energy prices could yet rise again — Rogers repeated the bank’s view that this week’s pause in its key interest rate depends on how the economy unfolds.

In a single phrase, she addressed the predicament facing the central bank, where fighting the rising price of things like groceries only added to interest costs for Canadian borrowers — offering the bank an unpalatable choice between two painful options.

Raw meat on a grocery store shelf with price signs.
Prices are displayed at the meat counter in a Surrey, B.C., grocery store in January. Canadian prices of many essential consumer staples have continued to rise at rates above 10 per cent a year — far above wage increases, which remain below inflation. (Justine Boulin/CBC)

“We know that adjusting to higher interest rates has been hard for many Canadians,” Rogers told the Winnipeg audience, twice breaking into French, a language she’s learning. “We also know that many Canadians are asking how exactly making their mortgages more expensive while they are still dealing with higher grocery bills will eventually lower inflation and make their lives easier.”

Her answer to that rhetorical question may not be satisfying to those trapped between a plague of rising prices and the cure.

Storm of protests over food prices

Rogers offered a plain-spoken description of how inflation had turned from a global to a domestic phenomenon caused by a pandemic and what she called Russia’s “senseless war” on Ukraine.

“This perfect storm of factors was showing up in Canadian grocery stores by the middle of last year,” she said.

The problem is that as a storm of protests over grocery prices this week has reminded politicians, even as the global prices of energy, grain and shipping have declined, Canadian prices of many essential consumer staples have continued to rise at rates above 10 per cent a year — far above wage increases, which remain below inflation.

With everyone, including grocery store executives and their suppliers, denying they are responsible, it may be that the macroeconomic — that is, the economy-wide — impact of higher interest rates is the only solution to the problem.

Another sign that inflation is now increasingly down to domestic causes, Rogers said, is a tight labour market where workers are trying to catch up to inflation, while employers, anxious to fill jobs in a still-strong economy, are willing to pay.

In a pickle over productivity

The central bank, she said, is concerned that productivity — roughly, the amount of goods produced per unit of labour — is not rising enough to justify those wage increases. Instead, amidst a flood of immigrants and low-wage temporary workers, productivity — a persistent problem in the Canadian economy — has declined.

With wage increases still far below the rising price of groceries, Rogers did not ask businesses to justify rising profits, but she did point to the larger and more frequent business price hikes that bank governor Tiff Macklem told Parliament would have to end to help keep interest rates from rising.

In the media question-and-answer session, many business reporters asked about the effect on Canada if U.S. rates rise — something the chair of the Federal Reserve, Jerome Powell, told Congress this week could happen.

Some analysts suggest U.S. policy interest rates could increase from the current 4.75 per cent range to as high as six per cent to defeat persistent inflation.

A man with white hair and glasses, and wearing a blue suit, points his right index finger in the air as he sits at a desk and speaks into a microphone.
Going up? If U.S. Federal Reserve chair Jerome Powell continues to raise interest rates this year to fight inflation south of the border, as he suggested this week, it will be one more impetus for the Bank of Canada to follow suit. (Eric Lee/Bloomberg)

While admitting higher prices in our biggest trading partners, including the U.S. and Europe, caused by a sinking loonie could affect the Canadian economy and add to inflation here, Rogers repeatedly told reporters the central bank did not target the value of the Canadian dollar — which is allowed to rise and fall, or float, against other world currencies.

A falling loonie would be analyzed for its effect and “factored into our policy decisions,” Rogers said. “But the floating exchange rate is and will continue to be a key part of our monetary policy.”

Source : CBC