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Why Rates may hike sooner than later

General Angela Calla 7 Apr

Why we might see a rate hike sooner rather than later

Paul Vieira, Financial Post

OTTAWA — Stronger economic growth, propelled by a commodity boom and an improving U.S. job market, will prompt the Bank of Canada to begin rate hikes in July to a 2% level by the end of the year and 3.5% in late 2012, economists at BMO Capital Markets said Wednesday in releasing its updated outlook.

The investment bank’s economics team project first-quarter annualized growth of 4.4%, helping to power the Canadian economy to a 3% advance in 2011 — an improvement from the 2.7% gain BMO Capital Markets had forecast back in January. By year’s end, the country’s unemployment rate should drop to 7.4% from its present 7.8% level.

“The combination of low interests and high commodity prices are fuelling the domestic economy,” said Sal Guatieri, senior economist at BMO Capital Markets.

Consumer spending is expected to ease from 2010 levels, to 3%, but he said exports and a 12.8% surge in non-residential business investment would pick up the slack.

Canada also stands to benefit from an improving U.S. economy, poised to expand 3.2% in 2011, as the job market begins to turn around based on March data, he added. Monthly job gains in the 200,000-plus range could boost confidence among U.S. firms and households, translating into increased spending and investment.

Risks to the outlook include soaring oil prices, which could deliver a “serious blow” to the North American economy; Europe’s sovereign debt woes, with Portugal on the brink of an international bailout and concerns mount over Spain; and any further fallout from Japan’s earthquake and subsequent nuclear crisis.

The Bank of Canada, which issues its next rate decision on April 12, is likely to upgrade its outlook for 2011 based on the data that has emerged, Mr. Guatieri said. In its last outlook tabled in January, the central bank expected 2011 growth of 2.4%, with a first-quarter annualized advance of 2.4% — which is now well below estimates in the 4% and 5% range.

“The economy is growing much faster than the bank expected, implying less inflation-dampening slack,” Guatieri said, adding he expects the Bank of Canada to move up the timetable as to when the output gap — a measure of spare capacity — closes to mid-2012 from the previous call of the end of next year.

“The central bank will now likely move a little more aggressively on rates than planned.”

While Canada inflation remains muted, with the core rate at 0.9% as of February, Mr. Guatieri said BMO expects price increases to pick up steam in the months ahead. The central bank sets rates to achieve and maintain 2% inflation.

“We are at a low point on inflation,” he said. “The central bank can’t delay rate hikes indefinitely or it might face an inflation problem down the road.”

The European Central Bank is set to raise its benchmark rate on Thursday, even though sovereign debt worries have resurfaced, on inflation concerns.