09/21/2011 08:45 EDT | Updated 11/21/2011 05:12 EST

Gas Price Inflation Like A 7 Per Cent Income Tax Hike: CIBC Economist


Inflation over the past year on gas alone has done as much damage to Canadians' bottom line as a seven per cent income tax hike, a CIBC economist says.

Benjamin Tal said Wednesday's inflation data from Statscan, which shows year-over-year prices rising at a 3.1 per cent rate in August, suggests that consumers are about to run out of steam.

The numbers exceeded analyst expectations, as consumers shelled out 4.4 per cent more for food, 13.4 per cent more for energy and 22.8 per cent more for gasoline.

In five out of eight components of the Consumer Price Index (the basket of goods used to determine the rate of inflation), prices rose faster in August than in July, when inflation fell to 2.7 per cent.

"Clearly there's an impact on the consumer, and that's one of the reasons we see consumer spending softening," says Tal, whose report released Tuesday predicted that consumer spending would slow in coming months as Canadians pay more attention to their balance sheets.

The uptick in energy prices is no surprise to Consumers' Association of Canada President Bruce Cran, who describes Canadians as "totally frustrated."

"This is confirmation that consumers are being gouged, particularly in the fuel areas," he says. "I don't know what can be done about it, but consumers at the moment are [bearing] the brunt of the problem with the fuel prices, and I can't see any relief in sight."

Not everyone agrees, however. Bank of Canada Governor Mark Carney made clear in a speech in New Brunswick Tuesday that he's not concerned about inflation, indicating that the likelihood of an interest-rate hike remains slim, even though August's numbers exceeded the Bank's target of one to three per cent inflation.

Carney said he expects inflation "to continue to moderate as temporary factors, such as significantly higher food and energy prices, unwind."

But in the current climate of global economic uncertainty, a cooling off of inflation that arrives in this manner may come at a price.

"We are entering a period in which emerging markets are starting to soften. This means that inflation will soften [and] you don't have to raise interest rates in Canada to fight it," says Tal. "It's either you get inflation or you get slower economic growth -- that’s more or less where we are now."

As Sal Guatieri, senior economist at BMO, sees it, "the trend in inflation in Canada remains very subdued."

He says the increase in August, which was 0.2 per cent higher than analysts were anticipating, is "still well below the peak we were seeing for this year," which saw the inflation rate climb to 3.7 per cent.

"For the most part it's simply payback for several months of downside surprises in the inflation figures," he says.

But despite the evidence that another reprieve may be coming, he concedes that rising prices are just another factor weighing on consumers, who are already struggling with stagnant wages and significant debt loads.

"Hourly earnings have been growing at less than the inflation rate in Canada in recent months," says Guatieri, "so workers are losing purchasing power."