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Bank of Canada makes big rate hike, hints it may the last one

FILE PHOTO: Governor of the Bank of Canada Tiff Macklem walks outside the Bank of Canada building in Ottawa

By Steve Scherer and David Ljunggren

OTTAWA (Reuters) -The Bank of Canada on Wednesday hiked its benchmark overnight interest rate by half a percentage point to the highest level in almost 15 years and signaled its unprecedented tightening campaign was near an end.

The central bank has raised rates at a record pace of 400 basis points in nine months to 4.25% - a level last seen in January 2008 - to fight inflation that is far above its target. The bank cited still-strong growth and tight labor markets as the reason for the latest increase.

But it eliminated the forward guidance it has used since it began cranking rates higher in March, dropping language that said they would have to rise further.

"While the tightening cycle likely has reached its zenith, we'll need the pain of these higher rates to persist for a while to stall economic growth and thereby cool inflation," said Avery Shenfeld, chief economist at CIBC Capital Markets.

Money markets had bet on a 25-basis-point increase, but a slim majority of economists in a Reuters poll expected a 50-bps move.

Gross domestic product growth in the third quarter - at an annualized 2.9% - was stronger than expected and there is still "excess demand" in the economy, while labor markets remained tight, the bank said.

Overall, however, the central bank said that data supported its October forecast that growth would stall through the middle of next year.

"Looking ahead, Governing Council will be considering whether the policy interest rate needs to rise further to bring supply and demand back into balance and return inflation to target," the bank said in a statement.

Inflation, which clocked in at 6.9% in October, "is still too high" at more than three times the bank's 2% target, but three-month rates of change in core inflation have declined and indicate "price pressures may be losing momentum," the bank said.

Money markets moved to price in a terminal rate, or peak level for interest rates this cycle, of 4.43% in June, up about 7 basis points from before the policy decision. That suggests markets see about a 70% chance of another, 25-bps hike.

"The Bank of Canada delivered a somewhat dovish 50 basis point policy rate hike today by softening its explicit forward guidance that interest rates will need to rise further," said Stephen Brown, senior Canada economist at Capital Economics.

"We would not rule out a final 25 basis point interest rate hike in January, but the Bank is very close to the end of its tightening cycle," Brown said in a note.

If the bank's tightening campaign overshoots, it could trigger a deeper downturn than expected, something that the bond market is now signaling is a risk.

The Canadian dollar was trading 0.3% higher at 1.3610 to the greenback, or 73.48 U.S. cents, after touching its weakest level since Nov. 4 at 1.3699.

The next policy-setting meeting will be on Jan. 25, when the Bank of Canada will also update its macroeconomic forecasts.

(Additional reporting by Fergal Smith in Toronto, Editing by Sandra Maler, Kirsten Donovan and Deepa Babington)