Economic Insights from Dr. Sherry Cooper
Even bond traders and economists are stumped about what the next few years will bring. The repercussions of a global economy that stopped suddenly, shed millions of jobs and initially contracted 30% only to rebound in a flash on the back of free-money government programs are still being felt.
Predicting where the economy goes from here risks taking comfort in spurious accuracy. We’ve never experienced a similar set of circumstances. With hindsight, we now see that policymakers have made severe errors—taking interest rates to unprecedented lows and flooding the system with massive fiscal stimulus has precipitated global inflation; home prices in Canada surged 50% in the three years following the pandemic; variable-rate mortgages were much cheaper than fixed-rate loans as the central bank cut overnight rates to 25 basis points.
The volume of mortgage originations surged, with a record proportion, in VRMs. Now many borrowers have hit their trigger points. The banks allow the amortization of rising interest payments owed, easing the near-term pressure on borrowers. Those with adjustable-rate loans have seen their monthly payments rise seven consecutive times, with likely another rate hike next week. This, in addition to inflation, has reduced household purchasing power. Many are hoping that interest rates fall to pre-COVID levels soon.
Initially, the central banks argued that inflation was transitory. Many are betting that the old forces that worked to keep inflation under control for years would reassert themselves. The federal banking regulator is now proposing additional restrictions on mortgage lending to highly indebted households.
We hope for the best but must prepare for a slow return to 2% inflation. Home prices have fallen but are still up more than 35% from pre-pandemic levels. Labour markets are still robust, but a slowdown is inevitable. This will be a transition year with little likelihood of interest rate cuts. The Bank of Canada will pause soon to see if the lagged effects of higher rates further reduce inflation. Few believe the 2% target will be hit this year or next. The benchmark policy rate, now at 4.25% will not return to its pre-COVID level of 1.75%.