Bank of Canada's Carney warns of mounting risk, predicts bad quarter for economy

Julian Beltrame
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The Canadian Press

[OTTAWA, ON] - Strain from a world awash in debt is increasing the risk to what is already a fragile and weak economic recovery, the Bank of Canada warns.

And Canada faces a second, more immediate challenge from temporary factors such as disruptions from the Japanese earthquake and tsunami that will limit growth to about one per cent this quarter, governor Mark Carney added Wednesday.

“This is a disruptive time, there are a major series of changes going on ... so there will be some volatility,” Carney told a Senate committee after his bank released its latest biennial Financial Systems Review.

The U.S. economy - which most Canadian exporters depend on - is a shadow of itself, he said, adding that U.S. households may need a decade to get out from debt.

Meanwhile, although emerging economies are booming, Canada's exporters, with the exception of commodities, are under-represented in that world.

And lastly, there's the mountain of debt weighing on the balance sheets of advanced countries, from Japan to parts of Europe to the U.S., that will dampen growth for years.

The summary put into stark language the findings of the central bank's financial systems review, released earlier in the morning, which took a more pessimistic view of the recovery.

The big problem facing the world is debt. Debt even threatens Canada's economy, given that household indebtedness is at record levels and could grow further before tailing off.

“The key risks to the stability of the Canadian financial system remain elevated and have edged higher since December,” the bank concludes in the systems review.

For the first time, Carney revealed to a Senate committee that the current second quarter in Canada could see growth drop all the way to one per cent, from 3.9 per cent in the first three months.

Acknowledging that he had previously predicted growth of two per cent this quarter, which ends June 30, Carney told the senators: “The growth could be even lighter than that, it could be in the one per cent range.”

He added, however, that he still expects the economy to do better in the second half of this year.

The bank report and Carney's testimony comes as Greece is again under the gun to hold off a credit default that would likely cripple some European banks and possibly touch off a new round of global financial jitters.

But the Bank of Canada says the debt woes extend further than Greece to other peripheral European nations - Spain, Portugal and Ireland - and over the longer term, to the U.S. and Japan.

Canada too faces a troubling household debt issue, the bank warns, which could be exacerbated by shocks, including an economic downturn and interest rate hikes.

In a separate report card, U.S. Federal Reserve officials also took a darker view of the situation, downgrading growth expectations both for the economy and job creation.

All these risks “are interconnected and mutually reinforcing,” the Bank of Canada said.

Carney urged Canadians to keep things in perspective, however, growth is “reclining, not declining,” and Canada still benefits from sound fundamentals.

Canada's financial system got a “healthy” grade both in terms of the soundness of the banking system and business balance sheets, but it is vulnerable somewhat to outside forces.

Carney said Canada's exposure to Europe's sovereign debt is small, but not insignificant, given the interconnectiveness of the international banking system.

“The Canadian financial system is not immune to the tensions that are currently affecting European markets,” the bank's policy council says in the report.

Finance Minister Jim Flaherty has also expressed concern about the Greek crisis, urging European policy-makers to “create a firewall that would ensure that this type of issue would not spread beyond Greece.”

Despite the weak recovery and the pain it will cause, governments have no choice but to start the process of getting their fiscal houses in order, said Carney.

He cautioned that indebted countries, even the U.S., shouldn't assume bond markets will be always be prepared to fill their credit needs at reasonable rates. Canada learned that lesson the hard way in the 1990s, he pointed out.

“Our experience in the mid-1990s is that the bond market is there and then it's not,” he said.

Domestically, the bank is still very worried about Canadian household debt, which is at an all-time high of 147 per cent of disposable income.

The risk, it says, is that as household finances get squeezed, Canadians will have less money to spend on consumer goods, which would slow down economic growth.

“Further moderation in the pace of debt accumulation by households is needed to contain the buildup of this vulnerability,” it says.

The bank also cites global imbalances, the two-speed recovery where advanced nations grow far slower than emerging economies, as additional risks that appear no closer to resolution.

“If the significant fragilities that still burden the financial system are not addressed in a timely manner, the progress achieved to date could be derailed,” the bank said.

TD Bank economist Diana Petramala said the report suggests the Bank of Canada is very much in worry mode, and is unlikely to raise interest rates - which could weaken the economy - until 2012.

“All of these risks (cited by the central bank) could have significant economic consequences on Canada's economy and financial system,” if they are borne out, Petramala said.

“In addition, they are medium-term (rather than short-term) in nature, suggesting they are unlikely to disappear any time soon. Under our current forecast, we don't anticipate Canada's overnight rate to reach a more normal level of three per cent until 2013.”

The bank last hiked interest rates last September, lifting its policy setting to one per cent, still exceptionally low by historical standards.

Organizations: Bank of Canada, Financial Systems Review, Senate committee TD Bank

Geographic location: Canada, Europe, Greece Spain Portugal Ireland United States Japan

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