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5 Jul

Weak Canadian GDP puts BoC on the spot

General

Posted by: Angela Calla

Eric Lam, Financial Post · Friday, Jul. 2, 2010

With Canada’s economy stumbling in April, adding fuel to speculation the country’s roaring recovery that began in September 2009 was coming to an abrupt end, economists warned Canada’s central bank will have to tread carefully on its plan to raise interest rates for the rest of the year.

Derek Holt and Gorica Djeric, economists with Scotia Capital, said the Bank of Canada “was not likely to be swayed” by Wednesday’s economic data. The pair maintain a forecasted 1.25% benchmark rate by the end of the year.

“There should be enough strength in the underlying economic momentum to dismiss the drag on GDP in April as something that does not portend the start of a new trend,” the pair say in a note.

In April, Canada’s gross domestic product neither expanded nor contracted, compared with 0.6% growth in March. Economists surveyed by Bloomberg had been forecasting 0.2% growth in GDP for April.

This is the first time in eight months Canada’s economy did not expand.

In its report, Statistics Canada blames the stagnant April on a “large decline” in retail trade of 1.7%, after a 1.9% gain in March. Declines in manufacturing and utilities also contributed to the underperformance while advances in mining, wholesale trade, the public sector and construction helped to offset the decreases.

Krishen Rangasamy, economist with CIBC World Markets, said it was too soon to jump to conclusions.

“It’s too early to conclude from this GDP report that the recovery is already waning,” he said in a note on Wednesday. “The excellent handoff from March means that we’re starting the second quarter from a higher base, which sets Canada up for a decent quarter despite a slow start.”

Michael Gregory, senior economist with BMO Capital Markets, said that while the 3% growth now expected is respectable, it is a bit of a letdown compared with the 5% to 6% growth figures seen earlier.

“It’s kind of like driving on the highway at 100 kilometres an hour, then getting off and going 50,” he said in an interview. “But 3% growth is still all right and where we see it for this year.”

The second half of the year will likely move quite sluggishly, however, as a lot of spending in housing, renovation and other big-ticket items was “pulled forward” due to the HST, introduced in July in Ontario and British Columbia. Mr. Gregory expects growth of about 2% on average in the fall and winter months.

Canada’s economy also faces headwinds from the sovereign debt crisis in Europe, an even worse slowdown in the United States, and possible fallout in China, he warned.

Warren Jestin, chief economist with Scotia Economics, said in a note on Wednesday that Canada’s position as a resource leader should help keep it afloat in the face of other developed countries, although “this won’t be a hard race to win.”

The situation in Europe is troubling for Mr. Gregory, but he suspects the combination of weakening housing, high unemployment and zero credit growth will hurt the United States.

“That buzz you hear about a possible double-dip recession is legitimate and will remain a worry for markets the rest of the summer and into the fall,” he said. “It’s why we think the Bank of Canada will be on hold for a while after July.”

Mr. Gregory figures the central bank will raise rates 25 basis points at its next meeting in July, then go on hold to see how things play out in Canada the rest of the year. It is likely the BoC will push rates to 1% by the end of 2010 and add another 1 percentage point to 1.5 percentage points in 2011.

“An environment of 3% growth is still something that requires higher interest rates,” he said. “Rapid buildup in household debt is a long-term risk.”