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  • Writer's pictureStephanie Nash

Economic Insights from Dr. Sherry Cooper

The Bank of Canada remains staunch in its battle against inflation, utilizing its primary weapon—the overnight policy rate—which has escalated from 25 basis points to 500 bps since March 2022.

This historically low overnight rate was a direct consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic and implementing measures to cushion the economic impact of the lockdowns. These initiatives included reducing the policy rate from 1.75% to 0.25%, postponing mortgage payments, providing financial support to businesses for workforce maintenance, and compensating individuals for home quarantine. These measures, amongst others, reignited the economy upon the widespread availability of the vaccine.

The Canadian economy bounced back robustly once commercial activities resumed. Employment rates rocketed, and unemployment plummeted to all-time lows. However, the recovery faced a setback when Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2021, which caused supply constraints, and substantially increased energy and food. Despite the soaring inflation, central banks were initially hesitant to take action.

In hindsight, we now know the necessity for initiating interest rate hikes by mid-2021. Instead, this action was postponed until March 2022. Furthermore, the Bank of Canada and other significant central banks inundated the financial system with surplus liquidity by purchasing government bonds. This quantitative easing tactic made capital not only more affordable but also readily available, sparking an unprecedented boom in the housing market.

Many exploited the record-low rates of 2020 and 2021 by opting for variable-rate loans due to their lower costs. At its zenith, variable-rate mortgages (VRMs) accounted for 57% of all loan originations. These loans are due for renewal in 2025 and 2026. However, most of these loans have reached their trigger points and are negatively amortizing, barring substantial lump-sum payments by borrowers.

For those who chose adjustable-rate loans, monthly payments increased with every Bank of Canada rate hike. Delinquency rates, for the time being, remain impressively low within the prime space, though they are beginning to rise among alternative lenders.

After reaching a zenith of 8.1% in June 2022, inflation has slowed to 2.8% in June of this year. Regardless, the Bank of Canada continued its trend of interest rate hikes following a brief hiatus in its last two meetings, with speculation of another hike in September. The Bank has provided a buffer period for itself by projecting a return to the 2% target inflation rate by mid-2025—a considerably more extended period than initially anticipated.

The recent rate hikes and moderated expectations appear prudent considering the Bank's preference for mitigating inflation over preventing a recession. It is improbable that the Bank of Canada will reduce interest rates this year.

Although the policy rate is projected to decrease in the first half of 2024, it is not expected to return to the pre-COVID level of 1.75%. Negative real interest rates (the actual market rate minus the 2% inflation rate) are unlikely to occur, barring a global economic meltdown.

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