Posted on May 31, 2023

First Quarter Canadian GDP Was Stronger Than Expected Pushing the BoC Closer To Rate Hikes

The Canadian economy continues to show marked resilience to high-interest rates. Statistics Canada released data this morning showing real GDP rose at an above-consensus 3.1% annual rate in the first quarter of this year. The estimate for April growth was also firm, a harbinger of continued strength in Q2. The combined drags of the public sector strike and the Alberta wildfires didn’t cause a significant downdraft. 

First-quarter growth was driven by strong international trade and robust household spending. These factors were partly mitigated by slower inventory accumulation and declines in new housing construction and business investment in machinery and equipment. 

After two quarters of minimal growth, household spending rose for goods (+1.5%) and services (+1.3%) in the first quarter of 2023. Expenditures on durable goods (+3.3%) were driven by motor vehicles, including new trucks, vans, and sport utility vehicles (+7.8%). Spending on semi-durables (+4.3%) was led by garments (+4.5%), while spending on non-durable goods (-0.2%) declined slightly.

Service spending picked up in the first quarter of 2023, led by food and non-alcoholic beverage services (+4.4%), and alcoholic beverage services (+6.5%). Meanwhile, travel was on the rise, with expenditures by Canadians abroad up 6.8% in the first quarter, compared with a 3.3% decrease in the previous quarter.

These data do not portend a household sector overly burdened by rising mortgage and credit card payments. 

Coinciding with higher borrowing costs and slowing mortgage borrowing, housing investment fell 3.9% in the first quarter of 2023, the fourth consecutive quarterly decrease. The decline in investment was widespread—as new construction (-6.0%), renovations (-2.1%), and ownership transfer costs (-1.5%), which represents resale activity, were all down. 

We know housing activity has picked up considerably since the first quarter, undoubtedly adding to Q2 growth. Also expansionary is the persistent rise in employee compensation, led by salary gains in professional and personal services, manufacturing and construction.

One warning sign is the declining household savings rates and slower disposable income. Persistently high interest rates had a predominantly negative effect on net property income, as increases in interest income (+6.4%), mainly from deposits, did not keep pace with higher interest payments on mortgages (+14.7%) and consumer credit (+10.9%).

In contrast with lower disposable income, consumption expenditures (in nominal terms) rose 2.1% in the first quarter of 2023. This was faster than the 1.4% pace recorded in the fourth quarter of 2022, partly due to inflationary pressures. As a result, the household saving rate was 2.9% in the first quarter of 2023, down from 5.8% at the end of 2022. The household saving rate approached the pre-pandemic level, which averaged 2.1% in 2019.

Business incomes fell significantly in Q1, and judging from the stock market, corporate earnings news has also been disappointing across a wide array of sectors in the second quarter.

Bottom Line

The strength in today’s data and the higher-than-expected inflation number for April will cause the Bank of Canada to seriously consider raising the overnight rate by 25 bps to 4.75% when they meet again next week. I think they will hold off to see the May employment and inflation data before they pull the trigger. 

Markets have already responded to the numbers. Short-term interest rates remain well above levels posted earlier this year, although that is mainly about the debt-ceiling issue in the U.S. The Bank’s statement will undoubtedly be rather hawkish.