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Canadians can bank on low interest rate environment for years to come: Poloz

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SASKATOON - Canadians can expect to enjoy relatively cheap borrowing costs for some time to come — even after the economy returns to full capacity and the Bank of Canada starts hiking interest rates, bank governor Stephen Poloz said Thursday.

But the central banker doesn't think sending that message means people will go on spending sprees.

Poloz says it will likely take until early 2016 before the economy is firing on all cylinders and inflation is back to two per cent. But even when it does Canadians shouldn't expect a sudden increase in interest rates to fight inflation, he told a business group in Saskatoon on Thursday.

"Our economy has room to grow and when we do get home, there is a growing consensus that interest rates will still be lower than we were accustomed to in the past," said Poloz.

"Both because of our shifting demographics and because after such a long period at such unusually low levels, interest rates won't need to move as much to have the same impact on the economy."

The statement represents a slight shift in tone for the central bank, which has for years warned households to be mindful of overextending themselves in the housing market because one day interest rates will need to start rising.

Poloz says the new normal will be lower rates than in the past and people should get used to that.

"Does that mean that they'll go out and borrow more? It could, but I really think that what we're observing is a high level of self-responsibility through this," he said.

"There's all kinds of anecdotal evidence that people are choosing to buy less house than they qualify for because they don't want to overextend themselves, that our banks are underwriting very carefully — making sure that people can service their debt even if interest rates go up before they renew."

The Bank of Canada has kept the overnight rate, which impacts short-term borrowing costs, at one per cent since September 2010, but in essence rates have been well below so-called normal levels since early 2008.

Some economists speculate the bank's overnight rate will settle in at the 2.25 to 2.5 per cent range, more than a full point or more below pre-recession levels.

The super-low borrowing costs are generally acknowledged to have aided the economy through the 2008-09 crisis and soft recovery — stimulating borrowing and spending among Canadians and businesses — but not without costs, including an overheated housing market and record high levels of household debt.

As well, it has been a difficult six years for savers who have realized low yields on investments, and it has made it tough for defined benefit pension plans to cover liabilities.

Poloz's speech to the Saskatchewan Trade and Export Partnership focused on the controversial subject of Canada's oil exports and their impact on the dollar and central Canada's manufacturing sector.

Poloz conceded that the strength of resource exports played a role in the appreciation of the loonie over the past decade.

While resource-rich regions benefited the most, all Canadians have shared in the "gift," he said. The bank has calculated that Canada's gross domestic income is about seven per cent higher today than it would have been without the improvement brought on by resource exports, particularly oil, since 2002.

"Yes, when we break this down by region, big benefits are accruing to the three oil-producing provinces (Alberta, Saskatchewan and Newfoundland). But those who suspect GDI (gross domestic income) is falling elsewhere will have to think again," he said.

"Rather, everywhere in Canada, GDI is higher than it would have been without the improvement in terms of our trade."

Poloz says other exports, including food, beverages and tobacco, should also improve as the U.S. market gains momentum. He expects grain shipments to be stronger too as a rail bottleneck that has left a bumper crop sitting in bins across the Prairies eases.

"We have every reason to hope that those logistical issues are on the mend as we sit here, so I'm optimistic about that."

Export Development Canada has said renewed strength in the United States and in emerging markets, along with a lower loonie, will trigger a rebound in the lagging export sector, particularly in automobiles, building materials and appliances.

Poloz says a sustained recovery "hinges critically" on exports or inflation could drift back down to around one per cent.

The bank has been forecasting stronger exports for about a year. Poloz acknowledges the timing has been difficult to predict, but he says the bank relies on the best data possible.

"The models are based on history — the history has substantially changed because of what we've been through. So we'll continue to do our very best and we do think that all the ingredients are present for this recovery in exporting."

— By Julian Beltrame in Ottawa and Jennifer Graham in Saskatoon

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