Stephen Poloz arrives before a press conference on economic support for Canadians impacted by COVID-19, at West Block on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, on Wednesday, March 18, 2020.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

Stephen Poloz arrives before a press conference on economic support for Canadians impacted by COVID-19, at West Block on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, on Wednesday, March 18, 2020.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

The Bank of Canada slashed its key rate one year ago. This is how it happened.

Stephen Poloz recalls trying to douse the economic flames caused by the pandemic

In February 2020, the governor of the Bank of Canada was testing the seal on his N95 face mask by trying to smell the scented gas his security team pumped at him.

In that moment, it occurred to him that COVID-19 might turn out to be more than just a health concern.

Stephen Poloz needed the protective mask in case he contracted the virus during a flight to Australia for an annual economic meeting. By the time he was in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia a week later for a meeting of G20 central bankers and finance ministers, the virus’s accompanying economic concerns were becoming apparent in places like Italy and Singapore.

Poloz had his own pressing economic concerns. Oil prices were plummeting, enough so that the Bank of Canada’s senior leadership was ready to cut its key policy rate by half a percentage point in response, even as COVID-19 cases rose worldwide. The cut, at the time the first since 2015, came March 4, a date already scheduled for a rate announcement.

“We believe we’ve done a lot there to cushion a blow,” Poloz said at a news conference following a Toronto speech the next day. “We don’t know how big the blow might be, so we’ll be looking at ways to figure out how big that blow might be and how long it might last.”

Before he faced the media, Poloz recalled scrubbing his hands, after shaking hands of many in the packed ballroom who came to hear him speak.

So began a month like no other at the central bank. After that first move brought the rate down to 1.25 per cent, Poloz oversaw two more cuts and the launch of a bond-buying program to prop up the economy as the first wave of the pandemic crashed on Canada’s shores.

Poloz, now with the Lawrence National Centre for policy and management at Western University, recalled the events in detail during a recent interview with The Canadian Press.

The day after the speech, Poloz called a snap meeting with the heads of the country’s big banks. The lessons of the 2008-09 financial crisis hung over the meeting, where the governor and his colleagues emphasized the importance of keeping credit flowing to companies and suggested giving mortgage holders payment holidays if things got really bad.

Poloz recalled speaking the same day with the deputy minister at the Finance Department, and with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at the end of the day.

A week later, on the morning of Friday, March 13, then-finance minister Bill Morneau called. The government planned to unveil an economic aid package that afternoon, and Morneau wanted Poloz to join him in hopes of projecting some confidence. Preventing a panic was top of mind.

“That’s when you get a real recession,” Poloz said. “It’s hard to restore confidence after it’s been shattered.”

Poloz had to check with his deputies on the central bank’s governing council, which was already considering cutting rates by another 0.5 per cent. They weighed cutting rates that day, rather than wait until mid-April for the next scheduled announcement and release of the bank’s monetary policy report.

In a few hours, the decision was made: The bank would drop the rate by another half a point, to 0.75 per cent.

Poloz’s chief of staff, Jill Vardy, and Carolyn Wilkins, then second-in-command at the Bank of Canada, worked out the wording of a press release. Poloz prepped for media questions. His opening statement was the last item to be finished, delivered to Poloz minutes before we went before the cameras with Morneau and the superintendent of financial institutions.

“(Morneau’s) insight into having the two of us there was a good one,” Poloz said. “At the time, there was no inkling that we might have anything to enact. It kind of just came together.”

The joint appearance created some unusual side-effects: When Poloz agreed to appear alongside Morneau the next week, jittery investors took it as a bad sign. The bank had to take the unusual step of issuing a notice that it wasn’t planning to cut rates to calm markets.

He said the rate-setting group still hoped to wait for the scheduled rate decision on April 15 to make a further drop, giving the bank time to put together a comprehensive package.

“In the background, we knew things were caving in and we were going to need to probably make the third move,” Poloz said. “And sooner than later.”

Other central banks, with whom Poloz was in regular contact, were slashing rates and heading to what’s known as the “lower effective bound” — basically as low as rates can go without turning negative.

What Poloz said tipped the scales toward action was a distortion at the front end of the money market, where dealers were paying more to finance their inventories of government debt than they actually earned on the debt itself. Poloz said they couldn’t let that persist until mid-April.

So early Friday morning, March 27, the Bank of Canada sent out a notice. The key rate was going to 0.25 per cent. It also launched bond-buying programs so the financial system wouldn’t freeze up.

His tenure as governor ended last June, and he’s been an observer since.

Thus far, the economy looks OK, Poloz said, noting that there are big fiscal decisions looming that will take some real orchestration.

Kind of like fighting a fire.

That was the analogy Poloz used one year ago when he explained the month of monetary moves by saying a firefighter hasn’t been criticized for using too much water.

After trying to douse the economic flames, he is intently watching the rebuild.

“I can’t wait to see how it all turns out.”

economy

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

The District of Ucluelet is fast-tracking temporary use permits for RVs/campervans as seasonal housing. (Westerly file photo)
Ucluelet reviews 11 applications for RVs as seasonal housing

“Housing is so essential to everyone, and an issue that cases a lot of stress to business owners.”

Parks Canada and Tla-o-qui-aht public works dig the washed up Princess M out from sand along the south shore of the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve. (Nora O’Malley photo)
Rescue attempt costs man his boat off Pacific Rim National Park Reserve

Coast Guard response questioned after volunteer responder’s speedboat capsizes in heavy swells

A B.C. Centre for Disease Control map showing new COVID-19 cases by local health area for the week of April 25-May 1. (BCCDC image)
Vancouver Island’s COVID-19 case counts continue to trend down

Fewer than 200 active cases on the Island, down from highs of 500-plus earlier this spring

(The Canadian Press)
Trudeau won’t say whether Canada supports patent waiver for COVID-19 vaccines

‘Canada is at the table to help find a solution’

Pieces of nephrite jade are shown at a mine site in northwestern B.C. in July 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Tahltan Central Government MANDATORY CREDIT
Indigenous nation opposes jade mining in northwestern B.C.

B.C.’s Mines Act requires operators to prepare a plan to protect cultural heritage resources

The body of Brenda Ware, 35, was found along Highway 93 in Kootenay National Park on Thursday, May 6, 2021. (RCMP handout)
RCMP ask for tips after woman’s body found in Kootenay National Park

Brenda Ware was found along Highway 93 in the park, 54 kilometres north of the town of Radium

People pass the red hearts on the COVID-19 Memorial Wall mourning those who have died, opposite the Houses of Parliament on the Embankment in London, Wednesday, April 7, 2021. On May 3, the British government announced that only one person had died of COVID-19 in the previous 24 hours. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Kirsty Wigglesworth
For a view of a COVID-19 future, Canadians should look across the pond

Britain, like Canada, is one of the only countries in the world to delay second doses for several months

Edmonton Oilers’ Connor McDavid (97) celebrates his 100th point this season with Leon Draisaitl (29) against the Vancouver Canucks during second period NHL action in Edmonton on Saturday, May 8, 2021.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Edmonton superstar McDavid hits 100-point mark as Oilers edge Canucks 4-3

NHL scoring leader needs just 53 games to reach century mark

Nuns of Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity, carry some of her relics during a vigil of prayer in preparation for the canonization of Mother Teresa in the St. John in Latheran Basilica at the Vatican, Friday, Sept. 2, 2016. In which city did she do much of her charitable work? (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)
QUIZ: How much do you know about these motherhood issues?

In honour of Mother’s Day, take this 10-question quiz

A map showing where the most number of cases were recorded from April 23 to 29. This map, revealing a breakdown of infections by neighborhood, was pulled from a data package leaked to the Vancouver Sun last week (and independently verified).
36 Abbotsford schools flagged for COVID-19 exposures in the last 2 weeks, shattering record

Clearbrook Elementary recorded an ‘exposure’ on all 11 school days

Island Health has confirmed COVID-19 exposures at Ecole des Deux Mondes in Campbell River on May 4 and 5, and at Mill Bay Nature School in Mill Bay on April 28, 29, 30 and May 3. (Metro Creative photo)
Two new COVID-19 school exposures confirmed by Island Health

Health authority contacting anyone exposed at Ecole des Deux Mondes, Mill Bay Nature School

Most Read