Making Economics Meaningful – How Official Inflation Figures Obscure Reality

Since 2008 (that evergreen financial milestone) central banks have tried to stimulate economies by keeping borrowing rates extremely low. The idea was that people and corporations would be encouraged to borrow and spend money since the cost of that borrowing would be so cheap. This would eventually stimulate the economy through growth, help people get back to work and ultimately lead to inflation as shortages of workers began to demand more salary and there was less “slack” in the economy.

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Following the financial crisis lending rates dropped from historic norms of around 5% to historic lows and remained there for most of the next decade.

Such a policy only makes sense so long as you know when to turn it off, the sign of which has been an elusive 2% inflation target. Despite historically low borrowing rates inflation has remained subdued. Even with falling unemployment numbers and solid economic growth inflation has remained finicky. The reasons for this vary. In some instances statistics like low unemployment don’t capture people who have dropped out of the employment market, but decide to return after a prolonged absence. In other instances wage inflation has stayed low, with well-paying manufacturing jobs being replaced by full-time retail jobs. The economy grows, and people are employed, but earnings remain below their previous highs.

Recently this seems to have started to change. In 2017 the Federal Reserve in the United States (the Fed) and the Bank of Canada (BoC) both raised rates. And while at the beginning of this year the Fed didn’t raise rates, expectations are that a rate hike is still in the works. In fact the recent (and historic) market drops were prompted by fears that inflation numbers were rising faster than anticipated and that interest rates might have to rise much more quickly than previously thought. Raising rates is thought to slow the amount of money coursing through the economy and thus slow economic growth and subsequently inflation. But what is inflation? How is it measured?

One key metric for inflation is the CPI, or Consumer Price Index. That index tracks changes in the price or around 80,000 goods in a “basket”. The goods represent 180 categories and fall into 8 major groupings. CPI is complicated by Core CPI, which is like the CPI but excludes things like mortgage rates, food and gas prices. This is because those categories are subject to more short-term price fluctuation and can make the entire statistic seem more volatile than it really is.

CollegeInflationArmed with that info you might feel like the whole project makes sense. In reality, there are lots of questions about inflation that should concern every Canadian. Consider the associated chart from the American Enterprise Institute. Between 1996 – 2016 prices on things like TVs, Cellphones and household furniture all dropped in price. By comparison education, childcare, food, and housing all rose in price. In the case of education, the price was dramatic.

Canada’s much discussed but seemingly impervious housing bubble shows a similar story. The price of housing vs income and compared to rent has ballooned in Canada dramatically between 1990 to 2015, while the 2008 crash radically readjusted the US market in that space.

The chart below, from Scotiabank Economics, shows the rising cost of childcare and housekeeping services in just the past few years, with Ontario outpacing the rest of the country in terms of year over year change when it comes to such costs.

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My desktop is littered with charts such as these, charts that tell more precise stories about the nature of the broader statistics that we hear about. Overall one story repeatedly stands out, and that is that inflation rate may be low, but in all the ways you would count it, it continues to rise.

DIe6Fh2UMAEDmaIIn Ontario the price of food is more expensive, gas is more expensive and houses (and now rents) are also fantastically more expensive. To say that inflation has been low is to miss a larger point about the direction of prices that matter in our daily lives. The essentials have gotten a lot more expensive. TVs, refrigerators and vacuum cleaners are all cheaper. This represents a misalignment between how the economy functions and how we live. 

DJs5AdwXoAANcDTEconomic data should be meaningful if it is to be counted as useful. A survey done by BMO Global Asset Management found that more and more Canadians were dipping into their RRSPs. The number one reason was for home buying at 27%, but 64% of respondents had used their RRSPs to pay for emergencies, for living expenses or to pay off debt. These numbers dovetail nicely with the growth in household debt, primarily revolving around mortgages and HELOCs, that make Canadians some of the most indebted people on the planet.

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In the past few years, we have repeatedly looked at several stories whose glacial pace can sometimes obscure the reality of the situation. But people seem to know that costs are rising precisely in ways that make life harder in ways that we define as meaningful. When we look at healthcare, education, retirement, and housing it’s perhaps time that central banks and governments adopt a different lens when it comes understanding the economy.

This House Kills the Middle Class

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This house sold for $1,000,000 in Vancouver. Is it houses that are in demand, or land?

In the mountains of articles written about Toronto’s exuberant housing market, one aspect of it continues to be overlooked, and surprisingly it may be the most important and devastating outcome of an unchecked housing bubble. Typically journalistic investigation into Toronto’s (or Vancouver’s) rampant real estate catalogues both the madness of the prices and the injustice of a generation that is increasingly finding itself excluded from home ownership, finally concluding with some villain that is likely driving the prices into the stratosphere. The most recent villain du-jour has been “foreign buyers”, prompting news articles for whether their should be a foreign buyer tax or not.

What frequently goes missing in these stories are the much more mundane reasons for a housing market to continue climbing. That is that in the 21st century cities, like Toronto, now command an enormous importance in a modern economy while the more rural or suburban locations have ceased to be manufacturing centres and are now commuter towns. Combined with a growing interest in the benefits of urban living and the appeal of cities like Toronto its no surprise that Toronto is the primary recipient of new immigrants and wayward Canadians looking for new opportunities.

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Toronto itself, however, has mixed feelings about it’s own growth. City planners have made their best efforts to blend both the traditional idea of Toronto; green spaces, family homes and quiet neighbourhoods, with the increasing need of a vertical city. Toronto has laid out its plans to increase density up major corridors while attempting to leave residential neighbourhoods intact. Despite that, lots of neighbourhood associations continue to fight any attempt at “density creep”. Many homeowners feel threatened by the increasing density and fear the loss of their local character and safety within their neighbourhoods, at times outlandishly so. Sometimes this comically backfires, but more often than not developers find themselves in front of the OMB (Ontario Municipal Board) fighting to get a ruling that will allow them to go ahead with some plan, much to the anger of local residents and partisan city councillors.

The result is that Toronto seems to be growing too fast and not fast enough simultaneously, and in the process it is  setting up the middle class to be the ultimate victims of its own schizophrenic behaviour.

High house prices go hand in hand with big mortgages. The bigger home prices get the more average Canadians must borrow for a house. Much of the frightening numbers about debt to income ratios for Canadians is exclusively the result of mortgage debt, while another large chunk is HELOCs (home equity lines of credit). Those two categories of debt easily dwarf credit cards or in store financing. This suits banks and the BoC not simply because houses are considered more stable, but because banks have very little at risk in the financial relationship.

To illustrate why banks have so little at risk, you only need to look at a typical mortgage arrangement. Say you buy a $1 million home with a 20% down payment, the bank would lend you $800,000 for the rest of the purchase. But assume for a second that housing prices then suddenly collapse, wiping out 20% of home values, how much have you lost? Well its a great deal more than 20%. Because the bank has the senior claim on the debt, the 20% of equity wiped out translates into a 100% loss for you, the buyer. The bank on the other hand still has an $800,000 investment in your home that must be paid back.

Bank vs you

By itself this isn’t a problem, but financial stability and comfort is built around having a set of diversified resources to fall back on. In 2008, in the United States, home owners in the poorest 20% of the population saw not just their home prices collapse, but also all of their financial resources. On average if you were part of the bottom 20% you only had $1 in other assets for every $4 in home equity. By comparison the richest 20% had $4 in other assets for every $1 in home equity. The richest Americans weren’t just better off because they had more money, but because they had a diversified pool of assets that could spread the risk around. Since the stock market bounced back so quickly while much of the housing market lagged the result was a widening of wealth inequality following 2008.

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The impact of 2008 on household net worth by quintile. From House of Debt by Atif Mian and Amir Sufi

In Toronto the situation is a little different. Exorbitant house prices means lots of people have the bulk of their assets tied up in home equity. Funding the enormous debt of a house may preclude investing outside the home or building up retirement reserves in RRSPs and TFSAs. A change in interest rates, or a general correction in the housing market would have the effect of both wiping out savings while simultaneously raising the burden that debt places on families.

The issue of debt is one that the  government and the BoC take seriously, yet despite the potential impact of high debt levels on Canadians and the looming threat it poses to the economy the mood has remained largely indifferent. The BoC, under the governorship of Stephen Poloz, has said that it isn’t worried too much about Canada’s housing market. This isn’t because there isn’t a huge risk that it could implode, but because even if it does it is unlikely to start a run on the banks. By comparison the view of Stephen Poloz on the debt levels of Canadians is that its your problem. A curious stance given that the BoC’s position has been to try and stimulate the economy with low borrowing rates.

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There will probably never be as full throated a reason for my job than the burden the Toronto housing market places on Canadians. From experience we know that concentrating wealth inside a home contributes to economic fragility, potentially robbing home owners of longer term goals and squeezing out smart financial options. But far more important now is that city councillors and home owners come to realize that the housing market is more prison than home, shackling the city to ever more tenuous tax sources and weakening the finances of the middle class. Until then, smart financial planning alongside home ownership is still in the best interests of Canadian families.

Canada’s Problems Are More Severe Than You Realize

house-of-cardsOn December 10th, the Bank of Canada released it’s Financial System Review for 2014. It outlined numerous problems that continue to grow and potentially undermine the Canadian economy. Globally this report attracted a great deal of attention, not something the BoC is used too, but with a rising concern that the Canadian housing market is overvalued, an official document like the FSR gets noticed.

Screen Shot 2014-12-14 at 10.56.42 AMTo understand why Canada is growing in focus among financial analysts around the world you need to turn the clock back to 2008. While major banks and some countries went bankrupt, Canada and its banking system was relatively unscathed. And while the economy has suffered due to the general economic slowdown across the planet, the relative health of our financial system made us the envy of many.

Screen Shot 2014-12-16 at 10.39.42 AMBut the problems we’d sidestepped now seem to be hounding us. Low interest rates have helped spur our housing market to new highs, while Canadians in general have continued to amass debt at record levels. Attempts to slow the growth of both house prices and improve the standard of debt for borrowers by the government have only moved loan growth into subprime territory.

If all this sounds familiar, it’s because we’ve been talking about it for sometime, and sadly the BoC hasn’t been able to add much in the way of clarity to this story. While we all agree that house prices are overvalued, no one is sure quite how much. According to the report the range is between 10% to 30%. Just keep in mind that if you own a million dollar home and the market corrects, it would move the price from $900,000 to as low as $700,000. That can make a considerable dent to your home equity and its too big a swing to plan around.

Screen Shot 2014-12-16 at 10.39.06 AMOn top of this is the growth of the subprime sector in the market. Stiff competition between financial institutions and an already tapped out market has encouraged “certain federally regulated financial institutions” to increase “their activities in riskier segments of household lending.” This is true not just in houses but also in auto loans, where growth as been equally strong.

The Financial System Review also goes on to talk about problems growing in both cybersecurity and in ETFs (both subjects we have written about). It also talks about some of the positive outlooks for the economy, from improving economic conditions globally and support for continued economic activity. But its quite obvious that the problem Canadians are facing now is significant underlying risk in our housing and debt markets. These problems could manifest for any number of reasons (like a sudden drop in the price of oil, a significant slowdown in China, or a fresh set of problems from Europe), or they may lay dormant for months and years to come.

For Canadians the big issues should be getting over our sense of economic specialness. As I heard one economist put  it “Canadians feel that they will be sparred an economic calamity because they are Canadian.” This isn’t useful thinking for investors and as Canadians we are going to have separate our feelings about our home from the realities of the market, something that few of us are naturally good at. But long term investor success will depend on remaining diversified (I know, I link to that article a lot), and showing patience in the face of market panic.

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4 Reason Why Planning for Retirement is Getting Harder

How expensive is this Big Mac? More expensive than you might think...
How expensive is this Big Mac? More expensive than you might think…

For the enormous wave of Canadians that are on course to retire over the coming few decades, retiring and planning for retirement is getting harder.

Here are the four big reasons why!

1. Inflation

Inflation is the scary monster under the bed when it comes to one’s retirement. People living off of fixed pensions can be crippled by runaway costs of living, and naturally retirees dread the thought that their savings won’t keep pace with the cost of their groceries. But while historic inflation rates have been around 3.2% over the last hundred years, and have been around 2% (and less) over the past few years, inflation has been much higher in all the things that matter. Since the inflation rate is an aggregate number made up of a basket of goods that include big things like computers, fridges and televisions that have been dropping in price over time, those drops offset the rising price of gas, food and home costs. Since you buy food all the time and fridges almost never, the rate of inflation is skewed lower than your pocket book reflects.

You can show this in a simple way by comparing the price of a McDonald’s Big Mac over time. When the Big Mac was first introduced to Canada the price was .45¢, today that price is $5.25. Inflation has fluctuated a great deal since then, but let’s assume the historic rate of 3.2% was an accurate benchmark. If you apply that rate the price of a  Big Mac today would be $1.91, in reality the inflation rate on a Big Mac has been  much closer to 5.5%.

Canadian Inflation Rate from 2008 - 2014
Canadian Inflation Rate from 2008 – 2014

2. Interest Rates

The business of central bankers has gained greater attention since 2008, but for many making the connection between interest rates, the broader economy and their retirement is tenuous at best. The short story is that weak economies means low interest rates to spur borrowing. Borrowing, or fixed income products, have been the typical go-to engine for creating sustainable income in retirement, and low borrowing costs means low fixed income rates. The drying up of low risk investments that pay livable, regular income streams have left many retirees scratching their heads and wondering how they can keep market volatility at bay while still drawing an income. But as rates have stayed low, and will likely do into the future, bonds, GICs and annuities won’t be enough to cover most living costs, forcing retirees into higher risk sectors of the market.

Source: Bloomberg and FTSE TMX Global Debt Capital Markets, monthly data from July 31, 1989 to September 30, 2014, Courtesy of NEI Investments
Source: Bloomberg and FTSE TMX Global Debt Capital Markets, monthly data from July 31, 1989 to September 30, 2014, Courtesy of NEI Investments

3. Living Cost Creep

Guess what, the cost of living is going up, not just in real dollars, but because what we consider to be a “normal” number of things in our life keep expanding. Don’t believe me? When your parents retired they probably had a tv and an antenna for it. The cost of their tv was whatever they paid for it, and whatever it might be to replace it if it broke. By comparison most people today have moved into the realm of digital television, PVRs, and digital cable subscriptions. It’s almost unheard of today to not have a smartphone with a data plan and our homes are now filled with a wide assortment of goods and products that would have been inconceivable to a previous generation. The same is true for cars. While cars themselves cost less, prices are kept high by the growing feature creep that have slowly moved into the realm of necessity.

4. You Aren’t Dying Fast Enough

This appointment is wayyyy out in the future...
This appointment is wayyyy out in the future…

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not in a rush or anything; but the reality is that you are going to live a long time, and in good health. Where as retirement was once a brief respite before the angel of death swooped in to grab you maybe a year or two later, living into your 90s is going to be increasingly common, putting a beneficial, but very real strain on retirement plans.

In short, retirement is getting harder and harder to plan. You’re living longer, with higher costs and fewer low risk options to generate a steady income.

What Should You Do?

Currently the market itself has been responding to the low interest rate environment. A host of useful  products have been launched in the past few years that are addressing things like consistent and predictable income for those currently transitioning into retirement. Some of these products are able to reduce risk, while others explore non-traditional investments to generate income. But before you get hung up on what product you should have you should ensure that your retirement plan is meeting your needs and addressing the future. There is no product that can substitute for a comprehensive retirement and savings plan, so call your financial advisor today if you have questions (and yes, that includes us!)

Want to discuss your retirement? Send us an email and we’ll be in touch right away!