The Bank of Canada and the Soaring Canadian Dollar

The unprecedented surge in the Canadian dollar from 85 cents US in early 2007 to as high as $1.10 in early November is deeply disturbing in terms of its implications for the health of the economy and the job market. Very rapid exchange rate appreciation is bad news for most enterprises exporting abroad, or competing with US and Asian exporters in the Canadian market. The especially vulnerable manufacturing sector has already lost another 82,000 jobs this year, and is widely expected to cut more jobs and close more operations in 2008.

An exchange rate at or above parity will destroy cost competitiveness for large and important portions of the Canadian economy, notably manufacturing, but also tourism, cultural industries and those selling services into the US and Asian markets. Parity raises the fundamental question of whether the resource boom will destroy a significant part of our current economic base, greatly exaggerating regional differences.

Exchange rates can and do ‘over-shoot’ the level justified by fundamental factors, with permanent structural damage being inflicted if a serious over-valuation persists.

One estimation of a ‘correct exchange rate’ is that needed to equalize prices in two countries. Current best estimates of an exchange rate that equalizes US and Canadian prices (the Purchasing Power Parity or PPP exchange rate) are in the low 80 cent US range.

Another estimation is the exchange rate needed to equalize cost competitiveness in traded sectors, usually proxied by unit labour costs in manufacturing as regularly reported by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Canadian business sector wide productivity is estimated to be about 80% of the US level. Manufacturing productivity (real GDP per hour worked at PPP) has been estimated to be even lower at about 75% of the US level. Canadian and US manufacturing wages (measured in respective national currencies) were about equal in Canada and the US in 2005. It follows that a Canadian dollar above the low 80 cent range sharply erodes competitive unit labour costs compared to the US. Recent BLS data indeed show a sharp increase in Canadian unit labour costs in manufacturing compared to the US in 2005 and 2006, driven by the exchange rate appreciation. (There is more to cost competitiveness than unit labour costs, but some long-standing Canadian advantages such as lower power costs have eroded in recent years.)

The key point is that, well before we hit parity, a high proportion of Canadian operations found themselves with much higher cost structures than comparable US operations. A continued seriously over-valued exchange rate will push many out of business, and the challenge is greatly compounded by increased low wage competition from Asia. True, companies can pursue strategies which minimize the impact of relatively high unit labour costs, but this requires high and sustained investments in innovation.

The Government of Canada in the November Economic Statement and the Bank of Canada in its October, 2007 Monetary Policy Report concede that there are threats to economic growth if the dollar moves above parity. Concerns have also been sounded by the Premiers of Ontario and Quebec and even by the Prime Minister. However, at this time, the Bank of Canada still seems prepared to accept an exchange rate of close to parity.

It is argued here that the Bank of Canada can and should lower interest rates so as to put the brakes on the rising dollar.

What is Causing the Recent Surge of the Dollar?

The dominant, official view is that the surge of our dollar to at or near parity is justified by Canada’s improved terms of trade with the rest of the world (ie soaring prices for oil, many minerals and some agricultural commodities), and by the need of the US to deal with its huge trade and current account deficits. Much of the rise of the Canadian dollar is held to be the flip-side of a falling US dollar, which has affected most currencies which are not fixed or managed relative to the US dollar.

However, most observers seem to agree that recent trends in commodity prices do not fully explain the most recent rise of the Canadian dollar to and above parity. True, the price of oil has surged close to $100 US per barrel, and the Canadian dollar is widely perceived to be a ‘petro-currency.’ But oil exports (crude oil plus refined petroleum products) make up only 12% of our total exports, far less than the struggling auto sector which still contributes about 20% of exports. Energy exports in total account for close to 20% of exports, but this includes natural gas exports for which prices have recently been at depressed levels. Also, while our terms of trade do improve with higher oil prices, there is an offset arising from the fact that we also import large quantities of oil.

It is far from clear that rising commodity prices will soon translate into a rising trade and current account surplus which would justify rapid exchange rate appreciation. In point of fact, our positive overall merchandise trade balance with the rest of the world is slipping rather than rising as many manufactured exports are being hit hard by the high Canadian dollar, and as the prices received here in Canada by energy and other resource producers are eroded by the increase in the exchange rate. The just-reported September, 2007 merchandise trade surplus was the lowest since December, 1998.

Measured in US dollar terms, commodity prices, including energy prices in the aggregate, have risen significantly in 2007, but they have not risen when translated into Canadian dollar terms. (See the Bank of Canada commodity price index.) True, crude oil prices have recently risen even in Canadian dollar terms, driven in part by speculation and in part by fears of ‘peak oil’, but the increase in the value of crude oil exports in the near to medium term is unlikely to outweigh the continued worsening of our deficit in the trade of manufactured goods.

Canada’s deficit in the trade of manufactured goods has exploded in recent years, hitting $28 Billion in 2006. It’s true that we are now exporting a lot of oil and gas and minerals, but resource exports can finance only about one-fifth of our imports. Some see service exports as the way to pay our way in the world in the future, but services make up only 13% of our exports; we run a huge ($14 Billion) deficit in the trade of services; and service exports have not been increasing rapidly. Put it all together, and an ever-increasing manufacturing trade deficit driven by a high and rising dollar is unsustainable.

The Canadian dollar is clearly not the only currency to rise against the US dollar in recent months, but the scale of our exchange rate appreciation has been exceptional. The Euro has also appreciated against the US dollar, but the Canadian dollar has risen relative to the Euro. The cost of a Euro in Canadian dollars has fallen from $1.54 in early 2007, to below $1.50 by mid year, to just $1.34 in early November.

The fall in the US dollar against many other currencies has begun to slowly improve US exports and lower the huge US trade and current account deficit. However, the US share of the Canadian market for imports is actually falling, while much of the falling Canadian share of the US market for manufactured goods is being filled by Asian rather than US domestic producers. China and other Asian exporters account for a far larger share of the US trade deficit than does Canada, but they have avoided any of the burden of adjustment by fixing or managing their own currencies relative to the US dollar. In short, we are bearing an unfair share of the burden of US dollar depreciation, and playing a minor role in resolving US trade imbalances. These can, in fact, only be resolved by a major appreciation of Asian currencies against the US dollar, which would benefit Canada as well as the US.

There is clearly a close relationship between recent changes in Canada-US interest rates and the Canada-US dollar exchange rate. The Canadian dollar was trading at 85 cents US in early 2007, rising to 91 cents US in May. The widely anticipated increase in the target for the overnight rate from 4.25% to 4.5% by the Bank of Canada on July 10 helped push the Canadian dollar to the mid 90 cent US range in July.

The surge of the Canadian dollar to parity with the US dollar and well beyond was then fulled by the half point cut in the target for the US federal funds rate on September 18, which helped push the Canadian dollar to parity at the end of September. This was followed by another quarter point cut at the end of October, and a further surge in the Canadian dollar well above parity.

Policy actions by central banks have eliminated the 1% difference between Canadian and US policy rates which existed in July, encouraging rather than discouraging investors from moving into a rising currency. This is likely linked to the recent surge of the Canadian dollar. While it was mainly US rate cuts from initially higher levels which eliminated the initial interest rate differential, the Bank of Canada could have matched those US rate cuts, but chose not to.

On top of the elimination of the interest rate differential between Canada and the US, it would seem that speculation has played a notable part in the most recent run-up of the Canadian dollar. Often, movements prompted by ‘real’ economic forces such as interest rate differentials and changes in trade flows are compounded by speculators such as hedge-funds and bank trading desks seeking short-term profits on gyrating currency movements.

The Exaggerated Fear of Inflation

The Bank of Canada argues that its central and most useful goal is to meet the 2% inflation target and that it has no target for the exchange rate which it sees as mainly driven by improved terms of trade and the fall in the US dollar. The Bank sees a higher Canadian dollar as part of the ‘transmission mechanism’ through which higher interest rates will slow economic and job growth to achieve its inflation goal. (In a very nuanced way, however, the Bank has said that the rise in the exchange rate above and beyond parity would be damaging if fueled by speculation.)

The Bank’s central argument has been that the Canadian economy is operating ‘above capacity’, as shown by inflation recently running slightly higher than the desired 2% mid point of the target range (though not, it should be said, higher than the target range of 1% to 3%.) That is why the Bank raised interest rates earlier this year, and why it has not lowered them since to match US rate cuts.

Currently, there is a great deal of economic commentary to the effect that the US economy is flirting with recession, while the Canadian economy is booming and increasingly less dependent upon the US because of a booming resource sector fueled by Asian growth. However, one has to note that growth in Canada is currently running lower than in the US. (US real GDP grew by 3.8% and 3.9% in the second and third quarters, compared to 2.5% in Canada in the second quarter.) The TD Bank’s most recent forecast is for 2.6% growth for Canada this year compared to 2.0% in the US, but for growth of just 2.3% in Canada in 2008, less than forecast growth of 2.4% in the US. The Government of Canada Economic and Fiscal Update reports a private sector consensus forecast of 2.4% for Canada in 2008, only slightly above 2.1% growth in the US. Almost certainly, however, these Canadian growth forecasts will be revised down sharply if the Canadian dollar remains above parity.

There is certainly a significant risk of US recession given the housing crisis and the sub prime and resulting credit squeeze, which is why the US Federal Reserve has acted pre-emptively with some success by cutting interest rates. There is equally a significant risk of a recession in Canada as a result of a seriously over-valued exchange rate.

With respect to the supposed risk of accelerating Canadian inflation, the core rate in September was at 2.0%, precisely the Bank target and the lowest increase in the core rate in several months. The national rate is boosted by high Alberta inflation (4.6%.) In all probability, inflation will fall as the rise in the Canadian dollar from the mid 80 cent range earlier this year does gradually feed through into consumer prices.

The Bank of Canada appears to be concerned by the implications for inflation of an unemployment rate of less than 6%, and hourly wage growth of just above 4% when measured by its favourite indicator (wages of permanent workers.) However, the Survey of Employment, Payroll and Hours shows that average hourly earnings of hourly paid workers rose by just 2.2% in the year to August, and average weekly earnings of all workers were up by 3.1%. Wage settlements for unionized workers are running at just above 3% in both the public and private sectors. Real wages are hardly exploding, especially for lower-paid workers. In the year August, 2006 to August, 2007, hourly wages of hourly-paid workers actually fell in retail trade (from $15.25 to $14.88 per hour) and hourly wages grew by just 2.6% in accommodation and food services, to the princely level of $10.76 per hour. One would expect a truly tight job market to be raising pay for the lower-paid, but this is just not happening.

Despite some reports to the contrary, job growth seems heavily tilted towards low paid and relatively precarious jobs. Data from the Labour Force Survey show that the majority of the 422,000 new jobs created over the past 12 months came in the form of self-employment (up 167,000) and temporary employment (up 71,000) combined. Of the 285,000 payroll jobs created over the past year (August 2006 to August 2007, seasonally adjusted, SEPH data), almost half (46%) or 130,000) were in the two lowest-paid broad industrial sectors, retail trade (85,000 net new jobs), and accommodation and food services (45,000 net new jobs.) While net job growth in these sectors made up almost half of all net job growth, they accounted for just one in five of all payroll jobs one year ago. At the margin, then, job growth is heavily tilted to precarious forms of employment and low wage service industries.

One implication is that workers displaced by the high dollar from manufacturing and other above average productivity jobs are unlikely to find comparable new jobs. Another implication is that the labour market is not nearly as tight as a high employment rate and low unemployment rate would suggest. Confronted with a truly tight job market, employers would be offering new hires steady employment, and employers in low wage sectors would be having to raise wages to retain workers. (We do see this in Alberta but not in Canada as a whole.)

In sum, the risks of inflation accelerating are exaggerated by the Bank of Canada, while the real risks of recession from an over-valued exchange rate are being minimized. Worse, a continued over-valued exchange rate will cause permanent structural damage as and when sectors not insulated by high commodity prices shrink significantly. As the recent Informetrica report on manufacturing for the labour movement underlines, a smaller manufacturing sector carries with it a high risk of growing trade deficits, and the risk of a smaller ‘knowledge-based’, high productivity economy in the future.

The Bank of Canada can and should state clearly that the current exchange rate is unsustainable, and cut interest rates to match the recent US rate cuts. This would still leave the Canadian dollar at uncomfortably high levels in the context of high commodity prices, but it would make a real difference. The Bank also can and should (as it has, to a degree) work with other central banks to address global economic imbalances in a fairer way through upward revaluation of Asian currencies and a shift to more domestic demand driven growth in China and other developing Asian countries. Consideration should also be given to proposals for greater international co-ordination of exchange rates.


  • You can say that again!

  • The Bank may well be underestimating the downside risks to the Canadian economy, and that’s a fair point. But I think that the Bank is justified in wanting to wait for some hard data showing that the Canadian economy is in fact slowing down. Pointing to reduced employment and falling exports in one sector or one region (and especially one sector in one region) isn’t enough; employment rates for the economy as a whole are at an all-time high, and (as of August, anyway), the Canadian economy as a whole was running a strong trade surplus. And since the value of oil exports and other commodities don’t look as though they’re going to fall anytime soon, the trade surplus isn’t likely to dissipate anytime soon.

    And the notion that the Bank of Canada should pay explicit attention to the exchange rate needs some thinking through. Keeping exchange rates low so that we can prop up manufacturing exports to the US is what the Chinese are doing. I don’t think that it makes any sense at all to try to compete with China in that particular game.

  • Fair enough, many would argue the same, but I think manufacturing (Ont./Que) plus the forest industry spread across northern Canada is a bit more than one sector/one region. Employment rates are indeed high, job quality less impressive especially at the margin. As you say, I think the real issue is the risk of a serious downturn from the over valued exchange rate. By the way, New Zeland seems to have successfuly sold the NZ dollar to lower their exchange rate – an admittedly risky and potentially costly thing to do.

  • Awesome post.

    From some of the analysis and commentary by government leaders and others, its as if we have somehow magically transformed our economic base and manufacturing can somehow survive at the valuation of a dollar above the 80 cent mark. Potentially if our society were given the proper lead time our economic base could survive such a lofty height that the dollar has risen. But the timeframe would have to be something like 10-20 years, not 10-20 months. This is economic suicide.

    In regards to the last comment, who ever said we are trying to compete with china. Who would want to? Our manufacturing and forestry industry has a lot more depth and breath to it than competing with China. With thoughts such as Mr. Gordons, we’ll soon be nothing more than a giant export resource extraction zones. Rather than an export processing zones (epz) that lay scattered across the globe we shall start setting up these resource extraction zones, no taxes, union free – low wages and no benefits, subsidies, free infrastructure, low labour standards.

    We’ll designate the oil sands, the canadian forest, various mineral deposits like Sudbury as special zones and be done with it. They way Mr. Harper is working, I would not doubt that somewhere in the backroom of an old Reform party office, is a book that lays out the model of these resource extraction zones.


  • Just wanted to say that it is simply amazing the various dimensions of causality and consequences of inaction, and the resulting high dollar that you have outlined above Andrew. Amazing in a sense that the way the media seems to portray the whole rise of the dollar within the public discourse. It as if this this is all some kind of hockey game or something. The last two days have been some of the worst reporting of the dollar I have seen. Must be some sound bite funkiness about the dollar going up that appeals to the public, maybe nationalism I guess as it sure gets the air play. I wouldn’t have this much of a problem, but the analysis that goes along with sound bite and the way they are reporting the rising dollar is almost non-existent, (at least meaningful analysis).

    It really is a sad state of public affairs we have going in this country. So many educated bright busy people, yet so much mock chicken being fed down the pipe from the powers above. (yah that orange stuff that I ate as a kid)

  • I was wondering what some thought about the US side of the devaluation and the US interest rate policy, that plays a fairly large part in process outlined above. With a report today coming out of the Stats that the housing market is the worst since the depression, should be ringing alarm bells here a lot louder than they are currently. It does bring to light some interesting questions.

    Is this a case of the US and China playing a game of currency truth or dare, as the US tries to shake off the chinese peg stuck into it.

    Will the sub-prime mess turn out to be a lot worse than it is, and if the US is forced to raise rates to defend an accelerated dumping of its dollar that the Chinese have threatened to do lately with its diversification talk, then the sub-prime mess could turn a lot uglier with these higher rates. Or is the sub-prime mess more or less a one shot episode with a lot of the damage out of the system. I guess it is how correlated the looseness in the lending strategies the culture of mortgage brokers unleashed in the US how far up the lending chain these margins have with the lending rate. i.e are we looking at a linear relationship or a unimodal blip on the relationship between loose lending practices and lending rates.

    Will the US treasury turn suddenly hawkish with the proposed inclusion of the all items CPI into their policy focus rather than the core numbers. Oil and a devalued dollar will impact these inflation figures dramatically. This again could pressure higher rates in the US.

    Given it is an election year coming up in ’08, you would think that the Republicans have not choice but to keep rates low to mitigate the sub-prime damage.

    I guess the key is what type of relationship are we looking at, linear or not.

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