Bank of Canada Still Expects No Rate Increases Until 2023
The Bank of Canada, this morning, released its January Monetary Policy Report (MPR), showing they expect to keep overnight interest rates at its “effective lower bound” of 0.25% until 2023 (see chart below). To reinforce this commitment and keep interest rates low across the yield curve, the Bank will continue its Quantitative Easing (QE) program–buying $4 billion of Government of Canada bonds every week until the recovery is well underway. The central bank indicated it could pare purchases once the recovery regains its footing.
According to the Bank’s press release, “The Governing Council will hold the policy interest rate at the effective lower bound until economic slack is absorbed so that the 2 percent inflation target is sustainably achieved. In our projection, this does not happen until into 2023.” Officials are apparently optimistic about the economy’s prospects once the vaccine is sufficiently distributed and injected. There is no indication that they are planning additional measures to ease monetary policy.
This is particularly noteworthy for two reasons: 1) some economists had been speculating that the Bank would lower the overnight rate by 10-to-15 basis points to help mitigate the impact of continued and broadening lockdowns; and, 2) others thought the early development of the vaccine would trigger sufficient growth to warrant a rate hike in 2022. In the Bank’s current view, neither is likely to be the case. Why mess with a minute cut in already record-low interest rates when mortgage lending is still strong? The slow rollout of the vaccine and the mounting second wave of cases assure weak economic activity in Canada at least until the second half of this year.
As well, inflation remains surprisingly muted. In a separate release today, Stats Canada revealed that price pressures in Canada unexpectedly slowed in December as the country endured a new wave of lockdowns. After climbing to the highest since the pandemic in November, the latest reading shows price pressures are still well below the Bank of Canada’s 2% target. That’s consistent with the view from policymakers that inflation will remain subdued for some time.
The pandemic’s second wave has hit Canada very hard, and the vaccine rollout has been disappointing (see chart below). Today’s MPR predicts that the economy will contract in the first quarter of this year. Economic weakness could be exacerbated by the Canadian dollar’s strength, which moved to above 79 cents US following today’s BoC announcement. Ten-year yields edged up modestly as well.
For the year as a whole, economic growth is expected to be around 4% in 2021, compared to a contraction of -5.5% last year. As the inoculated population grows, the Bank forecasts an acceleration in growth to just under 5% in 2022 and a more-normal 2.5% in 2023. According to the January MPR, “The medium-term outlook is stronger than in the October Report because of vaccines’ positive effects, greater fiscal stimulus, stronger foreign demand and higher commodity prices. Meanwhile, potential output has also been revised up, reflecting an improved projection for business investment and less scarring effects on businesses and workers. There is considerable uncertainty around the medium-term outlook for GDP and the path for potential output. Thus, while the output gap is expected to close in 2023, the timing is particularly uncertain.”
Concerning housing activity, the report said, “Demand for housing has continued to show resilience, despite increasing case numbers and tightening restrictions. Housing activity should remain elevated into the start of 2021, supported by low borrowing rates and resilient disposable incomes. Changes in homebuyers’ preferences have also played a role. For example, price growth has been strongest for single-family homes and in areas outside city centres,” shown in the chart below.
Dr. Sherry Cooper Chief Economist, Dominion Lending Centres
Despite the fears leading into the pandemic last Spring, 2020 marked a record number of home resales as new listings lagged and prices climbed. December housing data released by the Canadian Real Estate Association (CREA) today shows national home sales surged 7.2% month-over-month (m-o-m) at a time of the year when housing is normally slow. The chart below shows that resales were impressively above their 10-year average. The seasonally adjusted activity was running at an annualized 714,516-unit pace in December 2020 – the first time on record that monthly sales (at seasonally adjusted annual rates) have ever topped the 700,000 mark. It was a new record for December by a margin of more than 12,000 transactions. For the sixth straight month, sales activity was up in almost all Canadian housing markets compared to the same month in 2019.
The increase in national sales activity from November to December was driven by gains of more than 20% in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) and Greater Vancouver.
On a year-over-year basis (y-o-y), activity rocketed upward by 47.2% as interest rates hit record lows, housing needs changed owing to the pandemic, and supply was insufficient to meet demand. The housing boom occurred despite the fall in population growth, reflecting the dearth of new immigration. The yearly change in population growth in Canada nosedived in 2020 after climbing powerfully in the prior four years. Despite this headwind, for 2020 as a whole, 551,392 homes traded hands over Canadian MLS® Systems – a new annual record. This is an increase of 12.6% from 2019 and stood 2.3% above the previous record set in 2016.
“The stat to watch in 2021 will be new listings, particularly in the spring – how many existing owners will put their homes up for sale?” said Shaun Cathcart, CREA’s Senior Economist. “We already have record-setting sales, but we know demand is much stronger than those numbers suggest because we see can see it impacting prices. On New Year’s Day, there were fewer than 100,000 residential listings on all Canadian MLS® Systems, the lowest ever based on records going back three decades. Compare that to five years ago, when there was a quarter of a million listings available for sale. So we have record-high demand and record-low supply to start the year. How that plays out in the sales and price data will depend on how many homes become available to buy in the months ahead. Ideally, we’d like for households to be able to find and acquire the homes that best suit their needs and for housing to remain affordable, but the fact is we’re facing a major supply problem in 2021.”The number of newly listed homes climbed by 3.4% in December, led by more new listings in the GTA and B.C. Lower Mainland, the same parts of Canada that saw the biggest sales gains in December.
With sales up by more than new supply in December, the national sales-to-new listings ratio tightened to 77.4% – among the highest levels on record for the measure. The long-term average for the national sales-to-new listings ratio is 54.2%.
Based on a comparison of sales-to-new listings ratio with long-term averages, only about 30% of all local markets were in balanced market territory in December, measured as being within one standard deviation of their long-term average. The other 70% of markets were above long-term norms, in many cases well above.
There were just 2.1 months of inventory on a national basis at the end of December 2020 – the lowest reading on record for this measure. At the local market level, 29 Ontario markets were under one month of inventory at the end of December.
The Aggregate Composite MLS® Home Price Index (MLS® HPI) rose by 1.5% m-o-m in December 2020. Of the 40 markets now tracked by the index, only one was down between November and December.
The non-seasonally adjusted Aggregate Composite MLS® HPI was up 13% on a y-o-y basis in December – the biggest gain since June 2017 (see chart below).
Home price activity largely reflected the desire of home purchasers to move away from city centres to a greener, less-expensive suburbs and exurbs now that telecommuting appears to be a sustainable option, at least part-time.
The largest y-o-y gains – above 30% – were recorded in Quinte & District, Simcoe & District, Woodstock-Ingersoll and the Lakelands region of the Ontario cottage country (see the table below for details).
Y-o-y price increases in the 25-30% range were seen in Bancroft and Area, Grey Bruce Owen Sound, Kawartha Lakes, North Bay, Northumberland Hills and Tillsonburg District.
This was followed by y-o-y price gains in the range of 20-25% in Barrie, Hamilton, Niagara, Brantford, Cambridge, Huron Perth, Kitchener-Waterloo, London & St. Thomas, Southern Georgian Bay and Ottawa.
Prices were up in the 15-20% range compared to last December in Oakville-Milton, Peterborough and the Kawarthas, Montreal and Greater Moncton.
Meanwhile, y-o-y price gains were in the 10-15% range in the GTA and Mississauga, Quebec City, and the 5-10% range across B.C., and in Regina, Saskatoon, Winnipeg and St. John’s NL.
Alberta still lagged owing to the still-negative oil market scene, where home prices were up only 1.5% and 2.7% in Calgary and Edmonton, respectively.
The MLS® HPI provides the best way to gauge price trends because averages are strongly distorted by changes in sales activity mix from one month to the next.
The actual (not seasonally adjusted) national average home price was a record $607,280 in December 2020, up 17.1% from the same month last year.
Housing strength is largely attributable to record-low mortgage rates and strong demand for more spacious accommodation by households that have maintained their income level during the pandemic. The hardest-hit households are low-wage earners in the accommodation, food services, non-essential retail and tourism-related sectors. These are the folks that can least afford it and typically are not homeowners.
We end 2020 with the national average home price up 17.1%–a dramatic surge rather than the 9-18% decline forecast by CMHC last March. Moreover, 2021 is likely to be another strong year for housing. It would not surprise me if annual sales reached a new high in 2021, especially in the first half of the year. There will, however, be cooling signs as the year progresses and especially into 2022. Firstly, supply constraints are a major factor as new listings remain low relative to demand. As well, the pandemic-induced changes in housing needs will have a waning effect over time. As vaccine injections rise across the country and we return to a new normal, interest rates will creep up moderately. This along with higher home prices will slow the pace of activity as affordability erodes.
There will be mitigating factors in 2022: the number of new immigrants is slated to rise to roughly 500,000 that year and demand for short-term Airbnb rentals will rise sharply as tourism revives.
Dr. Sherry Cooper, Chief Economist, Dominion Lending Centres
Canadian employment fell 62,600 last month, a bit weaker than expected, following seven months of recovery (see chart below). The rapid rise in COVID cases and the ensuing lockdown measures in many key regions caused the net loss in jobs in the mid-December survey. Especially hard hit were workers at restaurants and hotels who suffered a hefty 56,700 employment loss.
The jobless rate rose a tick to 8.6%–well below the peak of 13.7% in April–but still three percentage points above its pre-pandemic level.
However, there were some bright spots as several sectors churned out small gains (see second chart below). Among them were finance, insurance and real estate, as well as scientific and tech services. Manufacturing rose 15,400, and public administration reported solid gains.
On a positive note, full-time jobs actually rose 36,500, and average wages pushed back up and are now 5.6% higher than one year ago. This outsized gain, in part, reflects the loss in so many low-wage jobs.
Part-time jobs were down sharply in December, led by losses among workers aged 24 and under and those aged 55 and older. Also, the number of self-employed workers fell by 62,000, its lowest point since the pandemic began.
The December loss of jobs left employment down 571,600 (or -3.0%) from year-ago levels, the deepest annual decline since 1982–but far better than the April reading of -15% y/y. The 2020 job loss in Canada of -3.0% is also a relatively mild downturn compared to today’s US job market release for December, which reported a -6.2% y/y drop in employment. In Canada, the 332,300 y/y loss in accommodation and food services employment alone accounted for 58% of our annual job loss.
Employment was down in nine out of ten provinces last month. The lucky exception was British Columbia. None of the provinces stood out on the low side. The table below shows the unemployment rate by province. Jobless rates rise and fall with labour force participation rates. You are not considered unemployed if you are not seeking work. The number of people counted as either employed or unemployed dropped by 42,000 (-0.2%) in December, the first significant decline since April. Core-aged women and young males were largely responsible for the fall.
It certainly doesn’t appear that the lockdowns will be lifted anytime soon. We keep hitting new records in the number of Covid cases, and the more contagious Covid variant is upon us. What’s more, the rollout of the vaccine has been disturbingly slow. So until winter is behind us, there is unlikely to be a meaningful opening of the economy. All things considered, Canada’s economy has been relatively resilient. That’s not surprising given the government income support–the most generous in the G7 countries. Moreover, financial conditions are extremely accommodative.
Although no one is coming through the pandemic unscathed, most of the employment losses have been lower-paying jobs. Many higher-income earners continue to work from home. And even though the pandemic is worsening, many of Canada’s housing markets recorded their strongest December ever. Rock-bottom interest rates, high household savings and changing housing needs turned 2020 into a spectacular year for housing activity.
According to local real estate boards, December resales were surprisingly strong for what is typically a quiet month. Existing home sales surged between 32% y/y in Montreal, Ottawa and Edmonton and 65% y/y in Toronto based on early results. More distant suburbs attracted many families looking for more space with less concern about long commutes when jobs can be conducted at home. Property values continued to appreciate at accelerating rates in most markets. Downtown condo prices still bucked the trend due to ample inventories in Canada’s largest cities—the downturn in the rental market has prompted many condo investors to sell. That said, softer condo prices are now drawing more buyers in. Existing condo sales soared virtually everywhere in December.
Housing is likely to continue to cushion the blow of the pandemic on the overall economy. And while not everyone is sharing in this windfall, it will ultimately help pave the way to better employment gains in the spring.
However, no question that the bright light at the end of the very dark pandemic tunnel is a widely dispersed vaccine. PM Trudeau reasserted this week that the vaccine will be available to all who want it by September 2021. At the pace, it is now getting into people’s arms, that will not happen. Just over 0.6% of Canada’s population was vaccinated as of Thursday, January 7. By comparison, the US had vaccinated 1.8% of its population by that date, and Israel had inoculated nearly 20%, according to Our World in Data, a nonprofit research project at the University of Oxford. The U.K. had vaccinated about 1.9% of its population by Jan. 3, the latest date for which vaccination numbers were available (see the chart below).
Dr. Sherry Cooper, Chief Economist, Dominion Lending Centres