Gasoline prices help drive inflation up to 3.4%

Canada’s annual inflation rate jumped to 3.4 per cent in Decemberaccording to data released by Statistics Canada on Tuesday.

That’s after both October and November saw inflation hold steady at 3.1 per cent compared to the previous year.

StatsCan said that the price of gasoline, air travel, passenger vehicles and rent drove the figure higher in December.

Food prices at stores also went up 4.7 per cent compared to last year, the same rate of increase as in November.

According to Doug Porter, chief economist with Bank of Montreal, the latest consumer price index measurements aren’t a surprise. 

“That’s a big improvement from where we were a year ago,” he said. “But it’s still just a little bit too high for comfort.”

Food inflation stayed at the same rate as the previous month. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Porter noted that Canadians may be spending less on what he called “discretionary spending” with travel tours in particular showing a drop, along with some recreational categories.

“We’re seeing a little bit of underlying softness. People are still willing to spend there, but just not nearly as to the same extent as they might have a year or two ago,” said Porter. 

Without gasoline, inflation dropped compared to November

In its release, the federal statistics agency pointed out the headline figure of 3.4 per cent inflation was “largely the result of higher year-over-year prices for gasoline in December.” 

While StatsCan says gasoline prices actually fell in December 2023 when compared directly to the previous month, back in December 2022 gasoline prices had comparatively fallen even more.

This leads to something called the “base-year effect,” where comparing today’s figures to last year’s can show a wider gap. It’s partly because of this effect that many economists predicted inflation numbers similar to what was released today.

If gasoline prices were excluded, Statistics Canada said the consumer price index for December would be even higher than today’s headline number and would be 3.5 per cent.

But inflation minus gasoline in December was lower than inflation minus gasoline in November.

Inflation remains higher than central bank target

With the so-called “headline” inflation number at 3.4 per cent, the economic measure is still higher than the Bank of Canada’s target of two per cent.

The central bank has increased interest rates 10 times since early 2022 to try and tamp down high inflation rates, and while a slowdown in inflation has led Bank of Canada governor Tiff Macklem to keep rates steady at five per cent for the last few months, many economists predict a rate cut could come sometime in 2024.

Speaking at the end of 2023, Macklem said it was too early to say if or when that would happen.

“I know it’s tempting to rush ahead to that discussion. But it’s still too early to consider cutting our policy rate,” he said in December.

Bank of Montreal has written that it believes December 2023’s inflation data still points to interest rate cuts in mid-2024, while CIBC is predicting the central bank will need to see “more progress” on some elements of inflation before considering a drop in interest rates.

“It’s really not quite there yet for where the Bank of Canada would like to see it,” said Doug Porter with regard to the latest inflation rates.

“They are worried that inflation pressures might just be smouldering at this point. It wouldn’t really take that much to ignite them again.”

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The inflation data comes a day after a Bank of Canada survey showed Canadians are increasingly cutting back on spending, while mortgage-holders remain confident they can keep up with higher payments when their loans renew.

According to the central bank’s fourth-quarter consumer expectations and business outlook surveys, roughly two-thirds of Canadians said they were reducing spending or planning to do so because of their expectations for interest rates and inflation.

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