Inflation picks up as February sees biggest month-to-month increase since 1991

OTTAWA – Consumer prices in Canada jumped by a surprisingly strong 1.2 per cent in February as a big hike in gasoline helped fuel the biggest month-to-month pop in inflation since January 1991 when Ottawa introduced the GST.

The one-month increase lifted the Canadian annual inflation rate by 0.7 point, also to 1.2 per cent, reversing a trend that had reduced annual inflation to 0.5 per cent in January, the lowest in more than three years.

Economists had expected inflation to start edging up, particularly as gasoline prices were known to have risen, but their best estimate was for a year-to-year increase of 0.8 per cent and a month-to-month increase of 0.7 per cent.

Despite the one-month inflation shock, analysts said Canadians had little to worry about and that the Bank of Canada will likely discount the report as an anomaly.

The roller-coaster movement in inflation was most likely due to temporary factors on both the upside and downside, they said.

“It was a surprise but it was predicated on some temporary factors that are likely to ease as we go forward into the next month or two, so I’m kind of inclined to look through it,” said Derek Holt, vice-president of economics with Scotia Capital.

Holt said the steep increase in gasoline prices from January to February — 8.4 per cent — is not being repeated in March.

BMO’s Doug Porter said the February result likely shows there was an end to deep discounting associated with the Christmas shopping season.

But he notes the higher inflation rate, while not good news for consumers, is still well shy of the Bank of Canada’s two per cent target and likely ends any speculation the central bank may lower interest rates to stimulate the economy.

A prolonged period of below trend inflation is an indicator of soft domestic demand, which at its worst, could weaken the economy by encouraging consumers to delay purchases in expectation of lower prices in future. The central bank would likely be reluctant to hike rates to compensate, however, for fear Canadians would borrow more and increase their debt loads.

“There was some talk of the Bank of Canada cutting rates because of the risk of deflation, but this has wiped that away, Porter said.

The surprising February report does not alter analysts’ expectation that inflation is a spent force in Canada in the longer term.

“With economic growth expected to remain below the economy’s potential, we expect disinflationary pressures to intensify in the coming months,” explained David Madani of Capital Economics.

The consensus view of the economy is that growth will be limited to 1.6 per cent this year, the slowest pace of expansion since the recovery began in July 2009. The view by Capital Economics is even tamer at 1.2 per cent.

Gasoline’s one-month spurt in February, after declining in January, pushed pump prices to an increase of 3.9 per cent annualized, contributing to a two per cent overall increase in the cost of transportation.

The other big mover was dealer auto prices, which rose 2.1 per cent on the month and 2.5 per cent over the past year, as fewer manufacturers’ rebates were offered in February.

Statistics Canada said there were also price increases in many other categories, helping lift the Bank of Canada core inflation index by almost half a point to 1.4 per cent. Economists had expected the core rate to remain at 1.0 per cent.

Besides gasoline and cars, clothing increased by five per cent from January to February, food by 0.9 per cent led by a 6.4 per cent jump as fresh vegetables, while travel accommodation rose by 4.5 per cent.

Restaurant meals were up 2.2 per cent, food 1.9 per cent, rent 1.6 per cent, homeowner replacement cost up 2.3 per cent and alcohol and tobacco increased by two per cent.

Not all items saw increases in prices, however. With interest rates remaining a rock-bottom levels, mortgage interest costs were down 4.2 per cent in February from a year ago, video equipment cost 10.2 per cent less, children’s clothing was 6.5 per cent lower and digital computing equipment and devices were 5.1 per cent cheaper.

The agency said inflation rose at a faster pace last month in all 10 provinces, with Newfoundland and Labrador topping the list at 2.3 per cent.

In a separate release, the agency said average weekly earnings of non-farm payroll employees edged up 0.1 per cent in January and were 2.7 per cent higher than in January 2012.