Virus Anxiety Hits Canada


As though things weren't volatile enough, a new wave of virus terror is wreaking havoc on global financial markets. The novel conronavirus, COVID-19, continues to spread causing panic in worldwide stock and bond markets for the seventh day. Share prices have plummetted in Asia, Europe, the U.S. and Canada. The sell-off is fueled mostly by concern that measures to contain the virus will hamper corporate profits and economic growth, and fears that the outbreak could get worse.

Interest rates are falling sharply, hitting record lows reflecting a movement of cash out of stocks and commodities like oil, into the safer havens of government bonds and gold. In Canada, the 5-year bond yield has fallen to 1.16% this morning, down more than 50 basis points (bps) year-to-date and down 65 bps year-over-year (see chart below). Mortgage rates are closely linked to the 5-year government bond yield, so further downward pressure on mortgage rates is likely. Oil prices have fallen sharply, hitting the Prairie provinces hard. Crude oil WTI prices have fallen to just over US$45.00 a barrel compared to $62.50 earlier this year.

The Canadian dollar has also taken a beating, down to 0.7468 cents US, compared to a high of 0.7712 early this year.

The Canadian economy was already battered as today's release of fourth-quarter GDP data shows. Statistics Canada reported that the economy came to a near halt in Q4 as exports dropped by the most since 2017 and business investment declined. Household spending was a bright spot--a reflection of a strong labour market and rising wages.

Monthly data for December, also released this morning, came in stronger than expected, showing the economy had some momentum going into 2020 before the coronavirus reared its ugly head.

The weak 0.3% growth in Q4 was expected as a series of temporary factors including a week-long rail strike, manufacturing plant disruptions and pipeline shutdowns slowed growth. Even though December posted an uptick, the first quarter will no doubt be hampered by the rail blockade and now virus-related supply and travel disruptions as well as reduced tourism.

Bottom Line: Panic selling in the stock market is never a good idea. The TSX opened down more 550 points this morning following yesterday's outage. Trading on Thursday was suspended around 2 PM for technical reasons.

None of this is good for psychology or the economy.

The Bank of Canada meets next Wednesday, and clearly, their press release will address these issues. It's unlikely the Bank will cut rates in response on March 4, but if the economic disruption continues, rate cuts could be coming by mid-year.

The new stress test will be in place on April 6. If rates were at today's level, the qualifying rate for mortgage borrowers would be more than 40-to-50 basis points lower than today's level of 5.19%. This will add fuel to an already hot housing market.

 
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