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Australia compared to Canada, a hint of what could be in store for us?

General Angela Calla 14 Apr

Pain in Australia is a peek at what’s to come Published on Tuesday, Apr. 13, 2010 The Globe and Mail Report on Business

For a glimpse of what the future may feel like in the Great White North, look Down Under.

Faced with a jumping housing market, a steadily improving job market and a commodity boom, all of which sound familiar to Canadians, Australian central bank chief Glenn Stevens is cranking up interest rates hard and fast.

The goal is to unwind emergency cuts and return borrowing costs to the historical average, and fast. Last week Mr. Stevens tightened again, his fifth quarter point move in seven months, leaving home builders furious and retailers begging for mercy because customers are disappearing.

The rapid rate increases have made the Australian central bank chief a controversial figure in a world where most central banks have been standing pat. He is a hero to many who believe that other bankers are leaving rates too low too long and courting inflation. Doubters believe he risks overdoing it and the Australian economy will suffer.

With Bank of Canada Governor Mark Carney widely expected to embark on a path to higher interest rates in coming months, Mr. Stevens’ actions and their consequences are a reminder to Canadians who haven’t had to deal with rising rates in four years just what it feels like. In short, it hurts.

Thanks to the $250 (Australian) a month in interest that the Stevens rate increases now are costing the average homeowner on a $300,000 mortgage, Australia’s roaring housing market is finally showing signs of slowing. Building permits are suddenly unexpectedly soft, price gains are tapering off and home loan approvals have fallen for five straight months. Some analysts are raising the prospect of an outright price decline.

At the same time, even though the country is enjoying a job boom, increasingly strapped consumers are apparently dealing with higher interest payments by cutting back on spending. Retail sales fell in two of the three most recent months.

These are all the aftershocks of a central bank dealing with the difficult transition from easy money that was pushed into the economy to cope with a perceived emergency to a post-crisis world where rates more truly reflect the realities of the business cycle.

The Reserve Bank of Australia is “reaching the point at which the central bank does make tradeoffs between economic growth and its desire to contain inflation pressures, and at the point where those tradeoffs where those tradeoffs become quite fine judgment calls,” said Avery Shenfeld, chief economist at Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce’s investment banking arm.

“It’s premature to say they’ve overdone it because they intend to sacrifice growth at this point in the cycle,” he added.

At some point, Mr. Carney will face the same tradeoff.

There are some fundamental differences between the two countries’ economies that mean it will be a while before Canada gets to the same turning point that Australia is now reaching.

While many people view the countries as very similar, Australia has a big head start economically. It skirted the global recession, its housing market didn’t drop as much in the worst of the crisis and the jobs picture is much brighter. The Australian unemployment rate is 5.3 per cent, compared to 8.2 per cent in Canada.

The other big difference is geography – Australia exports more to Asia, which has been fuelling the global recovery, while Canada remains heavily dependent on the hard-hit U.S.

Still, once Canadian rates start rising, they are likely to go up reasonably quickly. The Bank of Canada has a chance to hike at a scheduled rate-setting date next week, but most analysts expect the first increase closer to mid-year. After that, even the most dovish forecasters like Mr. Shenfeld lay out a scenario where Canadian rates climb over the next year and a half by much more than they have in Australia so far.

CIBC anticipates the Bank of Canada will take its benchmark rate up from the current 0.25 per cent to 2.5 per cent by the end of 2011. At the other end of the spectrum, Toronto-Dominion bank expects 3.25 per cent and Royal Bank of Canada forecasts 3.5 per cent.

At that point, as consumers feel the squeeze, having a thick skin becomes a key part of central banking. Mr. Stevens is blunt and seemingly unrepentant about the effects of his increases, judging by his recent statements. The hurt of higher rates is just part of economic life, so better to get it over with.

“If we wait too long do we end up having to do more of that (raising rates), and those people would actually end up in a lot more pain.”