Some time ago I wrote that it really didn’t matter whether or not there was a housing bubble, because what we actually have is a debt bubble. Houses just happen to be where the debt is. At that time many people were sceptical about the likelihood of an actual bubble. It wasn’t that prices weren’t high, it was just that people had been calling for a housing crunch for so long that most “serious” people simply didn’t think it was immediate or likely. That was several years ago now and the mood has shifted considerably. The housing bubble now occupies more mental space than any other economic challenge facing the country.
If one thing has gotten under the skin of economists and government officials, its how ineffective their attempts to lance this boil have been. Despite more stringent banking rules little has slowed the volume of cheap capital flooding the market that’s kept purchases up. We’ve even teetered into the murky xenophobic reasons for high house prices; absentee Chinese owners. Despite these initial efforts several realities have been hard to deny.
- Banks are lending too much: With interest rates at all time lows banks have lent more for less to keep profits up. Undoubtedly some of the mortgages (possibly many of these mortgages) should not have been offered by the banks at all.
- Secondary mortgage markets have grown substantially: If you couldn’t clear the low (low) bar that the banks had set to qualify for a mortgage you could always turn to the secondary banking market (we talked about them here) which would offer you a mortgage at a more punitive rate.
- There is a housing crisis: I’ve done my best to connect the high price of houses to a dwindling middle class, but it deserves to be mentioned again that there simply isn’t enough land development fast enough at high enough densities to offset the sheer number of people trying to work in and around the city of Toronto.
- Canadians have too much debt: How much debt is too much debt? I can’t say for sure but I promise we’ve already passed the tipping point on that. The numbers, mentioned so often that people can quote in their sleep, is an astonishing 167.3% of debt to disposable income at the end of 2016. Those numbers are worse when you realize that a large chunk of the Canadian population doesn’t carry any debt and so the level is actually much higher for those that do.
The response so far has been timid, as businesses and politicians are keen not upset the apple cart. But in the last two weeks several things have happened that, while not likely to lead to the downfall of the Canadian economy, put into stark relief how quickly these problems can arise and what they look like.
First, the housing crisis. This April we got headlines showing rents doubling for several people living in Toronto. While not normal it turns out that under the law, in certain circumstances, this is permitted. But as rental becomes more expensive and home ownership more unobtainable the province has felt the need to step in.
You can read Ontario’s Fair Housing Plan here if you like, but the response has been lukewarm from economists. The plan makes allowances for more development of land and attempts to give further powers to cities for things like a vacancy tax, but its unlikely that anything could be implemented quickly to change the market. The bulk of the plan is to extend rent control on all buildings in the province, capping the inflation rate on rent at 2.5%. This plan has been denounced by CIBC chief economist Benjamin Tal as “the exact opposite” of what is needed. Encouraging.
The next issue came out of Canada’s second largest mortgage provider, Home Trust Group. Dinged by the OSC for essentially misrepresenting the credit quality of borrowers on applications, they’ve had a sudden run on their high interest savings accounts (used to fund the mortgages). Investors were terrified that the company was about to collapse under the weight of risky mortgages. That may have been premature, but the fallout has forced them to seek a line of credit from a major pension and speaks to how nervous people are about the market.
But for every article worried about the imminent doom of the housing market, there is another one that is quite sure that things are still okay and somewhat stable, citing any number of structural differences between Canada and the situation in 2008. While that may be true, its important to remember that what hurts economies and makes nations week isn’t a single crisis, but a series of interlocking problems that are all connected. The Canadian housing bubble is about homes, but its also about debt, consumer spending, middle class anxiety, low yielding investments and aging populations, retirement financing and urban and suburban growth.
What Canada now has is a mortgage monster, debt so large and so important to the economy that no one is sure how to slay it without hurting the wider market at the same time. Against this shoggoth creature our politicians hurtle small stones, stern words and the promise of ever more study. These solutions will have the impact you might expect; very little. Whatever solution that exists to both increase affordability without undermining the debt situation or crashing the housing market currently exists beyond the reach of our politicians.
Facing a problem as great as this it’s a wonder more people don’t go mad.