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Is 2015 the year the Bank of Canada finally raises interest rates?

After 18 months on the job, Bank of Canada governor Stephen Poloz has yet to wield the primary tool at his disposal: the key interest rate.

When Poloz took the bank’s reins in June 2013, he inherited an overnight rate set nearly three years earlier by his predecessor Mark Carney. That rate has yet to budge from one per cent, idling for one of the longest stretches in Bank of Canada history.

Bill Robson, the president of the C.D. Howe Institute think-tank, believes it will happen sometime in 2015 thanks to an increasingly positive economic outlook, including an improving U.S. economy and a pickup in Canadian exports.

Once the bank’s overnight rate starts to creep up, Canadian businesses will see their borrowing rates rise as will consumers who take out car loans and mortgages.

Ian Lee, a professor at the Sprott School of Business at Ottawa’s Carleton University, predicts businesses will feel the sting of higher rates right away, but he expects the effect on households to be much more muted.

Many consumers, he added, will avoid a sudden jolt because of fixed-rate loans and mortgages.

On top of that, Lee said the rate would likely inch up a quarter-percentage point at a time, making the coming increases easier to manage than the towering Canadian levels of the early 1980s.

Lee said the rate hikes in the early 80s killed the real-estate market, but didn’t create a housing meltdown and the number of foreclosures barely increased.

On the flip side, higher rates would help pension funds reap a bigger return on their investments, Lee added.

McGill University economics professor Christopher Ragan said, fundamentally, rising rates are a good thing.

“It is signalling a stronger economy,” he said.

The Bank of Canada said last week the country had showed signs of a “broadening recovery” and the output gap appeared to be smaller than it had projected just six weeks earlier. The output gap represents the divide between where the economy stands at a given time and where it would be when performing at its full potential.

However, the bank’s statement offset the positives by pointing to potential threats: weakening oil prices that drive down inflation and the significant risks of high household debt accumulated during years of low borrowing rates.

The basic logic behind low rates is to encourage people to gather debt when the economy is weak, said Ragan, who has worked at the Bank of Canada.

Robson belongs to the camp that expects Canada’s strengthening economy to force Poloz to move the rate in the middle of 2015, while Lee predicts the rapidly shrinking output gap will spur an increase as early as this spring.

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development recently predicted the Bank of Canada would start pushing the rate up in late May due to advancing inflation, a key driver of interest rates.

At the other end of the spectrum, economists like David Madani of Capital Economics expect Poloz to stand pat for a while, even after the U.S. Federal Reserve starts hiking its own key rate.

He predicts the forces pushing Canadian inflation upwards to remain fairly subdued in 2015, which he says will keep the central bank in a “holding pattern” for the whole year.

Robson said it would even be OK if Poloz raised rates and then edged them back down, if necessary.

“Everybody knows that the central bank has trouble reading the economy just as everyone else does,” he said.

Source: The Canadian Press

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