Central banks talk about inflation, but are they losing credibility when interest rates don’t budge?

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Both the Bank of Canada and the U.S. Federal Reserve say they are really, really going to raise interest rates very, very soon.

But in separate news conferences on Wednesday they made it clear that neither of them are ready to do it just yet.

With the Canadian dollar surging above 80 cents US last week, there were a lot of people convinced that Tiff Macklem, governor of the Bank of Canada, was going to move first and hike rates this week. He didn’t. 

The delay in a Canadian rate hike that so many had expected was described by one analyst as a “policy misstep” that could fan the flames of inflation and the housing market. 

A reporter at the Wednesday news conference asked Macklem if he had lost the confidence of Canadians after his predictions about inflation proved wrong.

Waiting for the Fed?

But rather than taking radical market-moving action, both Macklem and his counterpart at the U.S. Federal Reserve, Jerome Powell, acted in a way that seemed intended to broadcast a loud “remain calm.” And both focused on the strength of the North American economy. 

Wild swings in global share markets seemed to show traders were convinced Powell was going to make a significant announcement of his own. With few exceptions, Powell just reiterated the Fed’s plan that he previously announced in December.

While Powell nodded to the recent market turmoil with a reference to “financial stability,” he said it didn’t worry him because banks, businesses and households were in excellent shape. Central bankers insist their actions are solely focused on those kinds of measures, known as the real economy. When they talk at all about short-term swings in currency or security markets, they like to say it is not their job to consider such things.

U.S. Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell on a screen at the New York Stock Exchange. No exciting, market-moving action at this week’s announcement as the bank stuck to a plan outlined in December. (Andrew Kelly/Reuters)

While Macklem may not like to talk about the loonie, people as savvy as the governor’s advisers at the Bank of Canada understand the economic impact of a rising Canadian dollar on trade if Canada starts raising interest rates too much in advance of the United States. That may have left the impression that Macklem is waiting to be sure that the Fed is actually planning to hike before making a move of his own.

But of course, that was not the reason Macklem gave for a delay. In fact, he said it was not a delay, merely a chance to give Canadians full warning that rate hikes are on the way, and he hopes they will not damage Canada’s strong economy. He also mentioned ongoing uncertainty about the effects of Omicron. 

Despite the lingering pandemic, one of the most important indicators of strength in both Canada and the United States was the startling health of the job market.

Hikes won’t threaten labour market

While some parts of the Canadian economy such those that depend on tourism may not feel it yet, said Senior Deputy Governor Carolyn Rogers, who appeared at Wednesday’s monetary policy announcement for the first time since her appointment last year, evidence from the country as a whole was overwhelmingly positive.

“We look at a broad range of indicators and overall what we observed is that employment participation rates are back up to near pre-pandemic levels, there’s pressure on wages, and employers are having a hard time finding employees for a high level of vacancies,” Rogers told reporters at Wednesday’s news conference.

“So in total, those things say to us that the labour market is tightening and slack is absorbed,” she said.

This month’s snow storm that hit Ottawa may have been another blow to the tourism sector, but other data shows that Canadian jobs have largely recovered from the pandemic downturn. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

Powell had a similar good news story from the United States, insisting that the job market was so strong it was unlikely to be damaged by higher interest rates that are still expected some time later this year.

“I think there is quite a lot of room to raise interest rates without threatening the labour market,” Powell told U.S. financial reporters.

But exactly when would the Fed raise rates and how quickly? Despite widespread belief hikes will come in March, and despite repeated requests from reporters, Powell was careful not to specify.

When? That’s hard to predict

As he said in December, the U.S. central bank will smoothly taper off its purchase of bonds — continuing but slowing the process of quantitative easing that the Fed has used to stimulate the economy — ending that process in March. From what the central bank has said in the past, that will open the way to raising interest rates, something that Powell expects will be necessary later this year.

“It is not possible to predict with much confidence exactly what path for our policy rate is going to prove appropriate,” said Powell in response to a reporter’s question. 

At the Bank of Canada news conference, Macklem was a little more forthright.

“The emergency measures needed to support the economy through the pandemic are no longer required,” said Macklem. “Interest rates need to increase to control inflation. Canadians should expect a rising path for interest rates.”

WATCH | How economists are reacting to Bank of Canada decision:

Bank of Canada surprises by holding key lending rate at 0.25%

The Bank of Canada has decided not to raise its benchmark interest rate just yet. Many economists had predicted an increase today due to inflation, which is now running at a 30-year high of 4.8 per cent. 3:18

Currency traders who recently seemed certain the Bank of Canada would raise rates at this meeting are now betting Macklem and Rogers will make their move at the next one. But Macklem did not make any promises.

Both Macklem and Powell said they foresaw sky-high inflation declining over the coming year. Powell, who had suggested last month it would be back in the two per cent target range by the end of 2022, hedged a little, saying his guess now was that it would be a little higher. He suggested that supply constraints for some goods could last into 2023.

Macklem gave an inflation figure of three per cent by year-end and actually made the optimistic suggestion that the prices of some goods could fall as the supply chain unkinks.

Unfortunately, while central bankers try to sound confident on the path of inflation, a look at their track record does not inspire confidence. And whether Macklem will really demonstrate his independence and hike rates before Powell reveals a firm decision, that too remains uncertain.

Follow Don on Twitter @don_pittis





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