A Canadian Story of Woe

 

drowning
A Canadian homeowner going for a relaxing swim in his mortgage…

 

One of the challenges of being a financial advisor is finding ways to convey complex financial issues in simple ways to my clients and readers. I believe I do this to varying degrees of success, and I am informed of my failures by my wife who doesn’t hesitate to point out when I’ve written something boring or too convoluted.

One such subject where I feel I’ve yet to properly distill the essential material is around the housing market. While I’ve written a fair amount about the Canadian housing market, I feel I’ve been less successful in explaining why the current housing situation is eating the middle class.

In case you’re wondering, my thesis rests on three ideas:

1. The middle class as we know it has come about as a result of not simply rising wages but on sustained drops in the price of necessities.
2. The rise of the middle class was greatly accelerated by the unique historical situation at the end of the Second World War, which split the world into competing ideological factions but left the most productive countries with the highest output and technological innovation to flourish.
3. A global trend towards urbanization and a plateauing of middle-class growth has started reversing some of those economic gains, raising the cost of basic living expenses while reducing the average income.

The combination of these three trends has helped morph housing from an essential matter of accommodation into a major pillar of people’s investment portfolios and part of their retirement plan. The result is that homeowners are both far more willing to pay higher prices for a home in the belief that it will continue to appreciate into the future, while also attempting to undercut increases in density within neighborhoods over fears that such a change will negatively impact the value of the homes. In short, stabilizing the housing market is getting harder, while Canadians are paying too much of their income to pay for existing homes. All of this serves to make the Canadian middle class extremely vulnerable.

 

Household Debt
You may be tempted to think “Wow, debt levels really jumped through 2016” you should remind yourself that this chart STARTS at 166%!!!

 

Proving some of this is can be challenging, but there are some things we know. For instance, we know that Canadians are far more in debt than they’ve ever been before and the bulk of that debt is in mortgages and home equity lines of credit (HELOC), which means much of that debt is long-term and sensitive to hikes in interest rates. We also have abundant evidence that zoning restrictions and neighborhood associations have diligently fought against “density creep”. But to tie it all together we need the help of HSBC’s Global Research division and a recent article from the Financial Times.

FT Global Leverage

Last week, HSBC issued a research paper on global leverage. Providing more proof that since 2008 the world has not deleveraged one bit. In fact, global debt has settled just over 300% of global GDP, something that I wrote about in 2016. An interesting bit of information though came in terms of the country’s sensitivity to increasing interest rates. Charting a number of countries, including Canada, the report highlights that Canadians (on average) pay 12.5% of their income to service debt. A 1% increase in the lending rate would push that up over 13%. For a country already heavily in debt, a future of rising rates looks very expensive indeed.

It would be wrong to say that fixing our housing market will put things right. There is no silver bullet and to suggest otherwise is to reduce a complex issue to little more than a TED Talk. But the reality is that our housing market forms a major foundation of our current woes. A sustained campaign to grow our cities and reduce regulatory hurdles will do more to temper large debts that eat at middle-class security than anything I could name.

Pay No Attention to the Bubble Behind the Curtain

Housing Bubble
From The Financial Post Magazine, Sept 15, 2015: “Canada’s Ever Growing Housing Bubble”

In the Wizard of Oz we were told that to enter the Emerald City, everyone had to wear green tinted glasses to “protect their eyes” from the “brightness and glory” when in fact it was the method by which the city itself was made to appear green. The first great illusion of the Wizard in the book. Canadian housing feels much like this. The worse the situation gets the more we are assured that the “brightness and glory” of the housing market is unassailable or simply not an issue, and we are invited to don our own emerald glasses.

Toronto LifeThe latest installment challenging that gilded view of housing and mortgages come from the November Toronto Life. Titled “Mortgage Slaves” it is a depressing look into the world of shadow banking and sub-prime mortgages here in Toronto, which far from popular belief is a lively and growing business. Private lenders and shadow lending can turn the reasonable prospect of paying a mortgage into a spiralling mess of debt. The family they interview took a moderate second mortgage for renovations, and promptly found themselves in financial trouble. Seeking help they refinanced several times with private lenders, moving their borrowing rate up from a reasonable rate of interest to 12%. Ten years on and they owed more money than they had paid for their house and were poised to have their home sold from under them.

FSR MFC LendingPossibly the most frightening thing is that Canadians borrow $10 billion a year for their down payments, meaning that the whole point of down payments is undone. And it is here that we see how problems arise. Housing has gone from being one of the most conservative practices to one of the most aggressive. Down payments are small, you still only need 5% to get a mortgage. The secondary banking business is growing, precisely in the area we don’t want with less credit worthy families. Housing prices are ballooning at rates far in excess of what would be deemed sustainable. The CMHC, the people insuring many of the mortgages and who will be on the hook for significant defaults, also believes that the housing market is vulnerable to a correction.

Home prices adjusted for inflationThe response from political parties during the last election isn’t just underwhelming to these problems, it was counter productive. Harper had promised to raise the maximum you could borrow from your RRSP for the First Time Home Buyers Plan. Trudeau’s plan was arguably worse, allowing you to dip more than once into your RRSP. The best plan was from the NDP to cut taxes to build more rental units.

The IMF, the Bank of Canada, the CMHC and The Economist all believe that our housing market is over valued. The response from banks, private lenders and politicians is to shrug and tell us not to worry. There is complicity from home owners and realtors, who are enjoying seeing the rising home valuations and the flurry of activity that it brings. Economists don’t worry because despite the high level of debt, Canadians don’t owe all that debt at once but over decades. So what’s the concern?

Economist HousingBut it should not take a MENSA level intellect to determine that nothing good can come from growth in the continued drop in quality of the banking system or in the quality of debt on issue. Politicians and citizens have to face a reality that high house prices are only good too a point, and that taming the housing market will pay greater dividends than the eventual fall disinterested parties are predicting. But most importantly, young Canadians should know that buying a house at any cost does not define financial success. But it could spell financial failure.

A Financial Advisor’s Thoughts on the Election

2015 election

Politics is personal and we are not in the game of telling you who to vote for, nor are we endorsing one party over another. These are our thoughts about three issues we find relevant to what we do on your behalf and how we look at the market.

Despite however sophisticated we may think we are, elections are still a confusing mess of promises, accusations and distractions. And making sense of what has been promised is quite difficult. Take for example the Liberals promise for an additional $20 billion in transit infrastructure spending over the next decade. That sounds great and will no doubt be welcome, but that works out to $2 billion a year nation wide (it is not being proposed to be allocated that way, but for simplicity purposes this will do). The cost of the controversial Toronto subway expansion is likely to exceed the $3.56 billion currently budgeted. Given the huge cost of transit infrastructure I’m at a loss to know how much difference $2 billion a year make across the country. Its a big sum, but I don’t know what it’s worth and I’d wager neither do you.

For this reason elections regularly fall victim to the desire of political parties and the media for an easier story to tell. And disappointingly this election spent far too much time talking about the niqab, an issue that, despite how you may feel, has only affected two people since the 2011 ban was first introduced.

There are a lot of issues in this election, but some that could have a meaningful impact on your investments and retirement savings, and I thought I’d share some thoughts on them.

TFSAs

Tax Free Savings Accounts have been a popular new tool for investing since they were introduced in 2009. Originally allowing for a $5000 per year contribution, then raised to $5500 and finally to $10,000 per year in 2015, the Liberals and the NDP have both vowed to roll back the increased contribution room to the more modest $5500 arguing that the room only benefits the wealthy. I have previously written that I think this is a bad argument and that TFSAs are a valuable tool for saving regardless of income. Obviously the Conservatives have promised to keep the contribution levels where they currently are, and notably there has been no discussion yet as to how a roll back would affect existing contributions and future contribution room, nor how the CRA would track this year.

Pension & Income Splitting

Pension splitting has been reaffirmed as a necessary and vital tool for retirees by all the parties. Conservatives, Liberals and the NDP have sought to reassure Canada’s most reliable voting block seniors that pension splitting will remain a part of their income options. In a telling move that illustrates how cynical perhaps our politics are and who will reliably turn up to vote, pension splitting will stay, but the NDP and Liberals would like to see income splitting go.

Income splitting, if I’m being honest, makes a lot of sense to me. Designed to help families with a large income earner and where one parent stays at home to raise children, it balances taxes paid where a two income family would pay less even though their combined incomes are equal to one large earner. The tax benefit is only open to families with children under 18 and capped at $2000, so it isn’t a necessarily huge tax write-off.

Interestingly, the argument against income splitting isn’t a great one. According to the Liberals (and backed up by independent think tanks) the tax credit is really only available to about 15% of Canadian households, and so by that logic alone has been described as a $2 billion tax break for the rich. My math suggests otherwise.

According to the 2011 census, there are just over 13 million private households in Canada. Couples with children account for more than 3 million of those households (3,524,915) or around 28%. That means (and I’ll admit I may have this wrong) eligible families for income splitting account for more than half of all households with children. So the idea that it isn’t a useful or widely available tax credit may not be as accurate as portrayed given who it is targeting.

Housing

Economist Canadian DebtAs you know, I hate Canadian housing, (but love talking about it). It’s a known disaster waiting to happen that consistently defies odds and makes everybody nervous. But while it’s where Canadians have accumulated the greatest amount of debt it hasn’t really been an election issue. The importance of reducing the cost of housing hasn’t really been recognized either. There are efforts from all parties to create more affordable housing, but that isn’t the same thing.

https://twitter.com/Walker_Report/status/655065283007225856

To this end both the Conservatives and the Liberals have brought some terrible ideas to the forefront. Conservatives have made their once temporary home renovation tax credit permanent, although they’ve cut it’s value in half to $5000 from the original $10,000 and have pledged to increase the maximum you can borrow from the Home Buyers Plan. The Liberals are offering to allow you to dip into the First Time Home Buyers plan more than once. Neither of these plans are great. The housing market is too hot and encouraging the use of RRSPs (you know, your private retirement savings) to encourage more homeownership highlights the complicity of Canada’s government in the soaring debt levels of Canadian families.

Home Ownership

In the end we may long for a political party that advised caution against further home ownership in a country where it is already at record highs, and one of the highest in the developed world. Just a reminder, the view of the government is that while high debt is a natural byproduct of low rates, too much debt will still be your fault.

https://twitter.com/Walker_Report/status/654734014243205124

We aren’t trying to influence your vote, but we think it is important to understand that underneath the bluster and mudslinging are policies which can directly impact the financial well-being of Canada, and Canadians like you. So please remember, on October 19th, vote!