Economic Insights from Dr. Sherry Cooper

March 6, 2024

The focus of the Bank of Canada is on slaying the inflation dragon. The good news is that the year has started with a marked decline in price pressures. Due to falling energy prices, airline fares and a deceleration in clothing and food, year-over-year inflation in January dipped to 2.9%. This follows 3.4% inflation in December.
The cost of shelter represents nearly a third of the Consumer Price Index, and the combination of rapidly rising population growth and already acute excess demand for housing will continue to underpin higher-than-target inflation. While mortgage interest costs will decline once the central bank begins to cut interest rates, and home replacement costs have already declined because of the overall decline in national home prices, rental costs are surging. In January, rents rose by nearly 8% y/y.

The pace of housing starts in Canada is inadequate to keep up with future demand. Over the past year, the population has increased by a whopping 1.3 million people, while housing starts are running at less than 250,000 annual pace. To be sure, starts saw strong year-over-year growth last year—the second-highest number of starts since 1990. Nonetheless, this is nowhere near sufficient to meet demand. Not to mention to meet affordable demand.

Even with the best intentions of governments at all levels, it is virtually impossible to maintain even this level of starts given zoning restrictions, land development costs, labour shortages and rising construction costs. Actions taken thus far by federal, provincial and municipal governments help, but we cannot house the current pace of immigration without seeing substantial upward pressure on rents.

According to economists at the National Bank, the difference between annual headline CPI inflation and shelter inflation is at its highest level since 1982. The Bank of Canada is mindful of these conditions. Inflation has fallen to the 2% target, excluding shelter costs, but those costs feed into inflation expectations and mounting wage demands.

Next week, Statistics Canada will release the fourth quarter GDP data, which is expected to run at about a 1.0% annual rate. There will be revisions to the -1.1% Q3 number as well. With the help of population growth, Canada has avoided a recession despite the huge increase in interest rates this cycle. But the labour market is slowing, and job vacancies have fallen sharply.

Homeowners will suffer marked increases in their monthly mortgage payments as they renew this year and next. Aware of this, the Bank will likely begin to cut interest rates by mid-year—beginning a series of rate cuts that will continue over the next two years.

Housing activity has likely bottomed, and home price pressures will begin to mount, especially in the GTA and GVA, where price declines were the largest. We believe the central bank will start cutting interest rates by mid-year.