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Bank of Canada holds key rate

OTTAWA — The Bank of Canada said Tuesday the economy is growing at a “slightly” faster pace than expected as signs emerge of a recovery in exports – although that remains at risk due to a high dollar and poor productivity.

Strength in commodity prices, which is a driving factor behind the Canadian dollar, could get a further short-term boost from recent unrest in north Africa and the Middle East, the central bank added.

As expected, the central bank kept its benchmark rate unchanged at 1%. In a five-paragraph statement, it acknowledged conditions in Canada are strengthening, a day after Statistics Canada reported the economy grew at a 3.3% annualized clip in the fourth quarter — or a full percentage point above the central bank’s forecast. Part of this is due to U.S. economic activity that is “solidifying.”

 

Furthermore, the central bank said early signals suggest a necessary transition is underway, from an economy powered mostly by consumers to business investment and exports.

The Canadian dollar weakened to C$0.9730 to the U.S. dollar after the bank’s statement.

“The recovery in Canada is proceeding slightly faster than expected,” the central bank, led by governor Mark Carney, said, “and there is more evidence of the anticipated rebalancing of demand.”

In its last rate decision on Jan. 18, the central bank said economic recovery in Canada was headed for a period of “more modest growth,” with 2.4% expansion expected in 2011. At the time, Mr. Carney said the country would be hard pressed to “fully benefit” from an upswing in U.S. prospects due to a lack of competitiveness. But the 2011 outlook is near the low end of expectations compared with private-sector economists, who upgraded their forecasts further after the release of fourth-quarter GDP data.

At present, the Bank of Canada said in its Tuesday statement, domestic demand continues to expand although household spending is “moving” in line with growth in disposable income. Over the past year the central bank has raised myriad concerns about the record levels of debt households are carrying, prompting the federal government to move twice to toughen mortgage-lending standards.

In the Bank of Canada’s view, business investment continues to “expand rapidly” as companies take advantage of low interest rates and the need to boost competitiveness. And an anticipated comeback by the trade-oriented sector appears to be unfolding.

“There is early evidence of a recovery in net exports, supported by stronger U.S. activity and global demand for commodities,” it said, although warning: “The export sector continues to face considerable challenges from the cumulative effects of the persistent strength in the Canadian dollar and Canada’s poor relative productivity performance.”

Prior to the rate statement’s release, the Canadian dollar touched another 40-month high, as the loonie hit US$1.0309, up from Monday’s close in the US$1.029 range. The Canadian currency shot upward after the release of the GDP data, on the anticipation the Bank of Canada may begin raising rates earlier than previously believed.

Traders have priced in 100% odds of a rate hike in July, once the U.S. Federal Reserve completes its US$600-billion asset-purchase plan. But some analysts say the GDP report tilts the balance back in favour of an interest rate increase in May.

Derek Holt at Scotia Capital, however, told clients prior to the Bank of Canada release that he expected Mr. Carney to highlight concerns about the loonie.

“Don’t expect the Bank of Canada to abandon its commitment to arguing that over the full cycle, Canada’s lackluster productivity gains and an elevated currency will constrain the extent to which Canada leverages up the U.S. recovery just because one quarter’s worth of data counsels otherwise,” he said.

The Canadian dollar rise is powered by the country’s relatively sterling fiscal fundamentals, economic prospects, and a rise in commodity prices — highlighted by oil prices cracking the US$100 a barrel level last week on concern about Libya.

In the rate statement, the central bank said robust demand from emerging economies is driving the strength in commodity prices, “which could be further reinforced temporarily by supply shocks arising from recent geopolitical events.” That was the only reference to the potential risks posed by a growing wave of protests across north Africa and the Middle East.

Global inflation pressures are rising due to higher energy and food costs. But in Canada, the central bank said inflation is in line with its expectations – the core rate, which strips out volatile-priced items, stood at 1.4% in January – and pricing pressures remain subdued, reflecting “considerable slack” in the economy.

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