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Why Stephen Poloz isn’t ready just yet to pivot on interest rates

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Normally, we’d preview the Bank of Canada’s next policy decision closer to the actual date. But all the relevant data has been published, so why wait? Unless the central bank scraps its story, it will leave the benchmark rate at 1.25 per cent on May 30.

Canada’s dollar dropped half a cent against its U.S. counterpart on Friday, probably because new readings on inflation and retail sales suggest the economy is chugging along, not racing ahead at a pace that would alarm policy makers. The prices of financial assets linked to short-term interest rates put odds of an interest-rate increase next week at about 25 per cent.

Bank of Canada Governor Stephen Poloz and his lieutenants on the Governing Council will take note of those prices. When Poloz abandoned explicit forward guidance, he said he hoped investors would think harder about the economy and spend less time trying to guess what he might be thinking. The market’s current message: There’s no need to change policy.

The sudden wobble in the renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement might also have influenced traders. Policy makers have characterized uncertainty about trade policy as the biggest headwind facing the economy because it’s a chill on investment. So the shift to a protracted negotiation, after politicians spent several weeks suggesting a deal was close, is a negative.

But trade never was going to play a major role in the May decision. The vibe around NAFTA was turning positive a month ago, and the Bank of Canada opted to leave the benchmark rate unchanged. Officials said they would stop worrying about trade only when they saw evidence that business investment was holding up. RBC Capital Markets said last week that its monitoring of company announcements suggests a modest increase in spending. Still, definitive data won’t be available until after May 30: Statistics Canada will release its tally of second-quarter gross domestic product the following day, and the central bank’s quarterly Business Outlook Survey is due on June 29.

That’s why the policy announcement scheduled for July 11 is the earliest the Bank of Canada could raise interest rates and remain consistent with what it’s said about how it would react to trade news, positive or otherwise. To move in May would require a noticeable change in other economic variables and that hasn’t happened.

To be sure, oil prices are about $15 a barrel higher than central bank’s current forecast, which is based on prices a month ago.

That will prompt some debate over the next 10 days as policy makers deliberate over where the economy is headed. Normally, a shift of that magnitude would represent a material change in Canada’s prospects. Yet there has been no discernible change in the value of the currency, the TSX or the outlook for economic growth, according to economists at Bank of Montreal. Higher crude prices mean the value of exports is rising, but those gains are being offset by doubts about whether the increase will last and the future competitiveness of Canada’s high-cost oil industry.

One indicator that would outweigh concerns about business investment is inflation. The Bank of Canada’s primary mission is to keep the consumer price index advancing at an annual rate of about 2 per cent. Statistics Canada reported the CPI increased 2.2 per cent in April from a year earlier, the third-consecutive month that inflation exceeded the central bank’s target. That’s noteworthy because annual price increases had brushed the target only three times in the previous three years.

The upward pressure on inflation could make the May decision a closer call than currency traders seem to think. The Bank of Canada cares more about three specially crafted inflation gauges than it does the headline number, which is often distorted by surges and plunges in energy and prices. Two of those three measures now are above 2 per cent, and the third is at 1.9 per cent, so for the first time since early 2012 all four of the key price indicators have been at target or higher. Sebastien Lavoie, a former staffer at the BoC who now is chief economist at Laurentian Bank Securities in Montreal, calculated that prices for 24 of the items in StatCan’s CPI basket were increasing at a rate faster than 3 per cent in the first quarter, compared with 22 that did so in 2017. The number of items that were cheaper declined to 30 from 34. The change suggests inflation is heating up, if only gradually.

“We still think it is preferable for [Bank of Canada] officials to remain on the sidelines at the May 30 monetary policy decision meeting,” Lavoie said in a note to his clients. “This being said, this decision is likely to be a close call given that two of the three core inflation measures are now above the 2% target.”

The two other factors that dominate the Bank of Canada’s narrative about the economy are household debt and Poloz’s contention that lower interest rates might actually help policymakers stay ahead of inflation.

Household debt is about 100 per cent of GDP, compared to about 70 per cent in 2005, according to the International Monetary Fund’s new Global Debt Database. All that debt probably means consumers are more sensitive to changes in interest rates than they were in the past. So the BoC is looking for evidence that credit growth is slowing, but not so fast that it crushes domestic demand. And as you might expect, higher interest rates appear to be restraining consumer demand. StatsCan said last week that retail sales jumped 0.6 per cent in March from the previous month, but only because of a surge in automobile purchases. Most other retail segments are essentially unchanged from January 2017.

Sluggish retail sales support Poloz’s argument that Canada’s economy isn’t as strong as its 5.8-per-cent jobless rate suggests. He sees elevated rates of long-term and youth unemployment as marks of the financial crisis and the oil-price collapse. Higher interest rates risk killing growth that could pull more of those people into the labour market and Poloz has been crystal clear that he intends to do what he can to encourage that to happen.

“In some models of the economy, that would become a permanent thing, a hysteresis thing,” Poloz said of the elevated number of marginalized workers, while talking to me and a couple of other journalists in Washington last month. “Well, if it can happen in one direction, there is no reason with enough time that it can’t be reversed because it’s just people combined with new investment, just building more economic building blocks.”

He added: “You’ve got to believe we’re going to get a fair bit of that. But again I can’t guess how much, but I think it’s a really important phase.”

It will take some strong evidence to push Poloz off that course and there hasn’t been enough since then to force a pivot. Bottom line: low for a bit longer.

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Saoirse McHugh: We need to talk about capitalism

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N HER FORTNIGHTLY column for TheJournal.ie, Saoirse McHugh of the Green Party writes about what we can do as individuals in the face of climate chaos.   

A most ludicrous situation is taking place in which we are disrupting weather systems we have relied on for centuries, poisoning drinking water, destroying habitats that provide food and fuel and pushing ourselves outside of the relatively stable climate we have enjoyed for the past few thousand years.

Despite all of this, most of our media and the great majority of our politicians refuse to talk about the reason why I believe this is happening. What is driving us to continue down such a grim and unpredictable path? The answer is capitalism.

Extracting profit from resources (often privately owned) and labour only to reinvest in further extraction has wreaked havoc on our world. The accumulation of profit as a shaping force in society leaves so much unaccounted for and undervalued.

In general, there is no cost given to implications such as resource use, pollution, and (much and all as I don’t like the term) ecosystem services such as air and water cleaning, pollination and nitrogen cycling.

When these are factored into cost it can have an alleviating impact, but of course the natural world does not trade in dollars and no amount of money can ever compensate for species extinction, coral reefs dying or the damage caused by oil spills like the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010.

The need for growth and the relentless expansion into and enclosing of new commons, such as carbon use and genetic information, means that capitalism is entirely incompatible with a finite planet and a just world.

Despite all this it is rare to hear our economic system discussed openly in Ireland outside of a few groups or lone politicians. It has developed the impression of being outside of our control, almost like some God imposed this system upon us.

When the conversation comes up politically, our elected representatives shy away from it and speak in vague terms about prosperity and growth. They do not delve into the idea that not only do we have the power to begin changing our economic system, but we have a moral and environmental imperative to do so.

‘But look at North Korea and Cuba’ 

I am not fully sure why there is such hesitancy to speak about capitalism. Is it because decades of American television have well and truly damaged the ability to talk about it without somebody bringing up the Soviet Union and communism?

I myself have had so many conversations where capitalism comes up and is met with: “But look at North Korea and Cuba, look at how many people died in Soviet Russia.” No doubt atrocities occurred in countries which were under a different economic system.

However, that argument ignores and minimises the atrocities that have been carried out in capitalist countries. The suffering and destruction capitalism has caused and is continuing to cause in the world is immeasurable.

It is a system with its origins in colonialism and to this very day there is a massive extraction of wealth from previously colonised countries. The social, physical, and economic violence used to keep these relationships in place is beyond comprehension and much of it has become accepted as normal.

It is ridiculous to talk about environmentalism without talking about capitalism, yet many people do so. Not only is it a part of our lives but it is the system within which we all operate.

It is all that most of us have ever known and for that reason people tend to avoid the conversation, perhaps for fear of looking radical or outside of the world of common sense.

The promises of green growth or sustainable capitalism are tempting, yet I fear that every year spent chasing these will-o-the-wisps is a year lost while continuing to worsen our predicament.

There will be no climate justice until we move to a different economic system. We need to halt the extraction of wealth from previously colonized countries and, more than that, repay and compensate these countries as fully as possible.

Obviously, it is not just capitalism that damages the environment. There are discussions of petroleum-based socialism and of communism focused on growth, which are extremely damaging too but we have arrived at a time where capitalism is the dominant economic model.

There is no point in skirting around the issue, we need to transform our economies and recognise that any politician who is not engaging in the conversation about our economic model and ways to change it is wasting everyone’s time. 

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Letter: Socialism may not be the cure but capitalism is the illness

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Socialism may not be the cure but capitalism is the illness. All Hanson offers is more of the same prescriptions that brought us to climate change, inequality, huge government, corporate and private debts, erosion of our infrastructure, a health care crisis, international turmoil, etc.

How about some ownership and something new? If we redefine the goal as sustainability instead of growth, universal equity in services and opportunity, building community instead of dominance, and building a world for the seventh generation in the future, then we must acknowledge that capitalism as we have known it is broken.

Rather than try to pigeonhole the opposition with a derogatory label, let’s find a way to utilize human character to fulfill the promise of a better world for all living creatures both now and in the future.

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Let’s restore our values, do away with capitalism

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One of the worst things that colonialism, apartheid and capitalism did to our people was to destroy the black family structures, the writer says.

In this past decade, we witnessed a degeneration of politics across the spectrum, with social media, notwithstanding its use, becoming the worst platform for corrosive politics.

We also witnessed moral degeneration and character assassination as influenced by capitalism.

The moral degeneration in SA is very high and that directly reflects the politics of our country.

This open letter is an invitation for us, more especially ANC and Alliance partners, to think critically about who we are as a society and perhaps champion ways in which we can restore some of the values that we have lost.

No more buyers for the escapism Top Billing is selling

Of all the feasts and feats of Top Billing in the past 23 years, there are perhaps not enough Gucci slides that can quite help it dodge its flip and …Opinion1 month ago

One of the worst things that colonialism, apartheid and capitalism did to our people was to destroy the black family structures. And one of our loopholes as the ANC from 1994 onwards was not to restore our values of ubuntu and revive the black family unit.

Twenty-five years into democracy, it is in our hands as ANC to dissociate ourselves with capitalism because capitalism is an evil that causes the corruption we are seeing now.

It is capitalist ideas that are behind killings of our comrades.

Capitalism is an inherently evil system that thrives on hate, jealousy and inhumanity.

Viwe Sidali, Duncan Village, East London

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