By Andrea Hopkins and Leah Schnurr
OTTAWA (Reuters) - The Bank of Canada flagged more interest rate hikes would be coming after it held its benchmark rates steady on Wednesday, but said it did not know when or how aggressive it would need to be to keep inflation in check.
Pointing to a pickup in wage growth and inflation, two issues that had concerned the central bank, Governor Stephen Poloz said policymakers believe the need for monetary stimulus continues to diminish steadily, albeit gradually.
"Most of our deliberations, therefore, concerned the appropriate pace of interest rate increases," Poloz told a news conference following the decision to hold rates steady for now.
For key highlights of the news conference:.
The bank has increased its key lending rate three times since last July, and financial markets expect the next increase to come in July. While the bank had been widely expected to stay on hold this month, some investors had bet on a surprise hike or hawkish tone, so the Canadian dollar weakened slightly against the greenback on the decision.
"We think the bank is on track to raise rates by July," said Sal Guatieri, senior economist at BMO Capital Markets.
"Clearly any bad news on the trade protectionism front or NAFTA talks would delay the Bank of Canada or if we see the housing market weakening more than expected in response to the tougher mortgage rules," Guatieri added.
The renegotiation of NAFTA prompted by U.S. President Donald Trump and the U.S. trade dispute with China are among the geopolitical risks that could undermine a global recovery and sideswipe Canada, whose economy relies on exports.
The bank reiterated that policymakers "will remain cautious" with respect to future rate moves as it watches to see how Canada's highly indebted households manage the higher borrowing costs. Poloz said the bank is watching to see how tighter mortgage rules affect the slowing housing market.
"There are things acting on the economy, some of which are a legacy of the financial crisis, the accumulation of debt, the uncertainty around NAFTA, the competitiveness challenges. It is a long list of things that are in the background that would be preventing the economy from getting all the way where it is today, all by itself," Poloz said.
While the bank trimmed its economic growth forecast for 2018 it hiked the outlook for 2019, saying the economy is operating with little slack. Still, capacity constraints have been limiting export growth.
(Reporting by Andrea Hopkins and Leah Schnurr; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe, Susan Thomas and David Gregorio)