Who Will We Hold Accountable?

June is here and the summer promises to be hot, sunny and inviting. Yet Canadians are still struggling with the pandemic, with daily numbers still in the 100s of new cases and the curve being bent slowly. Far from crushing the pandemic or setting up a robust testing and tracing system Canadians are being reprimanded for being to close to each other in parks and watching the mayor of Toronto walk around incapable of wearing a mask properly.

These results are not nationally representative, but regionally specific. Quebec is currently the worst affected province, with Montreal the country’s epicentre for the virus. Ontario fairs only a little better, while the rest of the country is beginning to move to reopening. In all, while Canada largely sidestepped an out of control spike, we have failed to bring the virus under control.

Fighting the pandemic has taken an enormous financial and emotional toll, to citizens, to cities, and to the economy. Economic lifeboats to offset the worst of the effects have cost in the hundreds of billions and will represent a sizeable financial burden for the foreseeable future. That cost has been born willingly, with people foregoing seeing relatives and friends, risking the survival of businesses, and saying goodbye to loved ones who died in hospital alone, all in an effort to smother a new and existential threat to our well being.

But Canadians will be right to wonder whether our governments maximized our response and put our consent to be governed to good use, or did they squander it in bizarre and foolish ways? I’m sorry to say that it’s probably the latter.

Cast your mind back to March (roughly 100 years ago) and recall that the minister of health, Patty Hajdu had insisted that the coronavirus posed a minimal risk to Canadians. Questions about whether we should be wearing masks were dismissed as misguided and the idea that closing borders to people travelling to places that had been Covid-19 hotspots was considered useless or potentially even discriminatory.

What an innocent time.

Today masks are recommended (sort of) albeit reluctantly, borders are largely closed and social distancing is not simply a recommendation, but mandatory and enforced by private businesses. Concerns about racism have been buried under a growing mountain of evidence that China actively misled the world about the severity of the new epidemic while simultaneously buying as much personal protective equipment as it could.

Given the conceivable difficulty with getting people to “socially distance” responsibly, something that people have never done in a society accustomed to largely doing what it likes with little fear from its government, the political opposition to masks has remained particularly puzzling. What has struck people as one of the most simple and straightforward ways to improve safety by embracing an obvious form of precaution has been regularly opposed by every public health official for all kinds of reasons right up to the moment that they decided that it was a good idea.

Other concerns about our government’s handling of the pandemic seem even worse. Though Ontario and Canada at large were meant to be better prepared as a result of the SARS outbreak, at every turn it seems that its quite the opposite. The national stockpile turns out to not have been much of a stockpile at all. Ontario’s own stockpile was largely destroyed in 2013 when it was supposed to expire and not replaced at the time (in a cruel twist of irony that expiry date was revealed to likely have been too early). In a recent interview, when Dr. Theresa Tam was asked whether concerns over pandemic preparedness had been presented to the cabinet she was cut off by the Minister of Health and reminded that all conversations with the cabinet are private.

The only thing that might have made up for all these missteps would have been an effective test and trace system that would have over-tested the population so that it could get out ahead of the virus and proactively isolated carriers. By comparison testing remains well below where it needs to be to accomplish this. In fact, to get a clear sense of just how far behind we are on the testing consider that in Ethiopia (ETHIOPIA!) the capital is testing people door-to-door! Meanwhile, here in Toronto it’s unclear whether you should even go in for testing or just stay home.

This isn’t a political rant. I’m under no illusions that another party or another leader might have made better or more decisive decisions. If anything multiple parties are to blame for the failed efforts to deal with the pandemic at every level of government. If I needed to find a single example that encapsulated the level of this failure, please consider that last week the Toronto Star reported that the TTC was trying to find out if they could legally enforce wearing masks on buses and subways! Months after a pandemic has ravaged people’s lives and eroded billions in wealth, only now does the TTC aim to see if it can enforce the most basic form of prevention for buses and subways. Even a cursory glance at where most of Toronto’s cases have been are aligned with poorer neighbourhoods that depend on more public transit.

These questions aren’t academic, and they aren’t partisan. The stakes are very real and the crisis will have a long reach into the future. Canadians have spent the last decade acquiring sizeable debt anchored by home values, with governments and banks happy to pretend that this debt was a form of wealth. Today the financial situation looks considerably worse, and one way to mitigate the damage to the economy would be to reopen the economy with confidence. Sadly, in the hands of our existing political class, such a thing remains out of reach.

Information in this commentary is for informational purposes only and not meant to be personalized investment advice. The content has been prepared by Adrian Walker from sources believed to be accurate. The opinions expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent those of ACPI.

Watching the Crisis Unfold in Real Time

Housing Crisis 2

The economic fallout of the pandemic has garnered many shocking headlines, from concerns over how many restaurants may fail to the sheer number of people seeking unemployment insurance. Some of this is economic rubber necking, basking in the shocking and outlandish statistics generated by the lockdown and pandemic. The real test is still in front of us, determining what is temporary and what is permanent.

up-unemployment-claims-estimates-promo-1585760380714-superJumbo
From the New York Times

Concern that a number of restaurants may not reopen seems a reasonable fear, since lots of restaurants don’t survive normally. The impact to the airline industry will take years to work out, since you can’t just put all those planes back in the sky. It will take time to determine which routes should be brought back first, how many people want to fly and the planes themselves will need considerable maintenance before any of them roll down a runway.

But hope springs eternal. Eight weeks into the lockdown and efforts remain underway to gradually reopen the economy, and in time we will see which parts of our society (not economy, but society) need real help to get back on its feet.

I remain largely optimistic about the speed of the recovery once it’s safe to reopen, but remain cautious regarding existing problems within the Canadian economy that the pandemic will likely accelerate. Problems that were hidden just under the surface will find themselves in the cold light of day, and those problems will have repercussions, many of which will not be easy to predict.

As I wrote back in March (Will Covid-19 Make Real Estate Sick?)

“Problems rarely exist in isolation, and a problem’s ability to fester, grow and become malignant to the health of the wider body requires an interconnected set of resources to allow its most pernicious aspects to be deferred. In Canada the problem has been long known about, a high level of personal debt that has grown unabated since we missed the worst of 2008. What has allowed this problem to become wide ranging is a banking system more than happy to continue to finance home ownership, a real estate industry convinced that real estate can not fail, and a political class that has been prepared to look the other way on multiple issues including short term rental accommodation, in favour of rising property values to offset stagnant wages”

The issue of debt, real estate and short-term accommodations may be one issue undergoing a seismic shift in real time. The website MLS paints a surprisingly changed picture of the rental situation in downtown Toronto. Condominiums like the Ice Condos, located at the bottom of York Street were written about last year because so many of the units were being used for Airbnb. Today they offer hundreds of long-term rentals. The story is not limited to a few buildings either, much of the downtown condo scene, once reserved for Airbnb customers, has suddenly opened to long term accommodation.

Condo Rentals
A snapshot of available rental in May 2020 in downtown Toronto

For a city that only a few months ago was running perpetually short of rentals this change has been rapid, but its fair to assume that many of these landlords are hoping that the crisis will pass and that things will return to normal, with lucrative business in short term rentals resuming. The effect of all these new rentals is not happening in a vacuum. According to Rentals.ca in their May 2020 report, the price of condo rentals in locations like the Ice Condos have dropped by 10%.

Rental Change in TO
From Rentals.ca

The flip side of the real time change has been the sudden collapse in real estate sales. Reportedly year over year housing sales have dropped in Toronto by 67%, and new listing are down 64%. The selling and buying of houses has simply come to a grinding halt, and with it much of the city’s revenue from the land transfer tax, creating a secondary crisis within cities that have depended on the land transfer tax for revenue growth. In a cruel twist on a well-intentioned effort to get government finances under control, Toronto isn’t allowed to run a deficit, a constraint that has turned into a fatal weakness under the pandemic.

It is here that we should stop and consider a reality. In a few short weeks two major sectors of the Canadian economy within the city of Toronto (and Vancouver for that matter) have been radically altered. But this is also a period where we have seen the most government support and extensive economic intervention. Long term expectations have yet to shift. Airbnb hosts wish to remain Airbnb hosts. Homeowners hope to continue to use their houses to expand their financial footprint. But we should take a page from the city of Toronto reviewing its financial books, the real crisis has yet to truly unfold.

Our future contains, but has yet to have pass, the retreat of government financial support. It has yet to put people back to work, yet to reopen universities, yet to ramp up our manufacturing base, yet to know much of anything about moving past Covid-19. Clarity about what governments should or should not do are hindered by China’s resistance to openness and transparency, while other nations that have already faced the pandemic and seemed to recover are running into second waves. There is no clarity about the future.

iStock-518182156 (1) (1)Real estate remains at the heart of the Canadian economic story for the last 20 years. Appreciating housing prices are the chief source for growth in Canadian families’ net worth. Borrowing to buy houses and borrowing against home equity remain our chief sources of debt. Our politics revolves around the tension of needing more housing in certain highly desirable areas while preserving those areas from over development. That dynamic has revolved around a status quo that seemed to have no conceivable end. The pandemic may have radically altered the Canadian real estate landscape regardless of how people feel about it or what they want. Whether we can walk back changes of this magnitude remains very much unknowable. For now we can only watch the changes our society and economy are undergoing and hope that what we are witnessing will be for the best, those changes that have happened, and those yet to come.

Information in this commentary is for informational purposes only and not meant to be personalized investment advice. The content has been prepared by Adrian Walker from sources believed to be accurate. The opinions expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent those of ACPI.

Journal of a Plague Year – In Defense of the Lockdown

Plague Year

While curves continue to be bent and geopolitics continues to become both more silly and more frightening than anyone ever thought possible, populations of countries remain unsure and troubled about whether they have made the correct choice of trying to beat COVID-19 through lockdowns and aggressive social distancing. Predictions of economic doom run rampant, ranging from serious recessions to the potential for a depression not unlike that of the 1930s.

With nothing to do but sit at home and twiddle our thumbs, either letting our house fall into total chaos or be cleaner than ever (a battle largely determined by how tired I am and how many cookies my kids have had) making predictions and considering alternative paths to beating this virus occupy considerable mental space. How will we know whether the unprecedented steps we have taken were the correct steps to take? What dark and strange future awaits us on the other side? I’m here to put your mind at ease, both because this situation is not unprecedented, and because we may not have had any other choice.

Let’s start with precedent. In an interview with Australian talk show host John Anderson, historian Niall Ferguson mused that future historians would regard our response to the pandemic as a mistake. This is an understandable position given the continued uncertainty around much of the virus. Is it very dangerous? Does it only affect the elderly? Do we even know how many people have it? Undoubtedly the biggest threat from the virus is what we don’t know about it.

But the assumption that it is the lockdown that is hindering the economy are belied by the available evidence. For instance, Sweden has been a focus through much of this since it hasn’t locked down its economy fully. Though schools have been closed and people have been advised to socially distance, restaurants and bars have been allowed to remain open. But estimates are that business has dropped off dramatically. In fact, despite having more of their economy not under lock and key does not seem to have materially changed the country’s fate, with early economic predictions of the contractions expected to be around 7% of GDP. That’s in line with other European neighbors.

In a similar story, the state of Georgia’s efforts to open early were met with disappointing results. People, worried about a virus that has a surprising amount of variability and high level of infection simply don’t want to go axe throwing, drink in crowded bars and go bowling. With the virus still being prevalent the thing restricting economic activity is not the lockdown, it is the virus.

Much is being made of the 1918 Spanish Influenza and this is an understandable place to jump to; the last memorable global pandemic that seriously interrupted the lives of people. Economists studying that event have concluded that “cities that implemented early and extensive non pharmaceutical interventions (like physical distancing and forbidding large gatherings) suffered no adverse economic effects over the medium term. On the contrary, cities that intervened earlier and more aggressively experienced a relative increase in real economic activity after the pandemic subsided.” Other lessons drawn from the 1918 pandemic were not to give up too early on restrictions and that a multi-layered approach was what worked best.

But precedent exists much farther back. In Daniel Defoe’s work “Memories of a Plague Year”, a book once thought to be a work of fiction, but now believed to be based on the diaries of Defoe’s uncle who lived through the last great plague in London of 1665, all the hallmarks of our modern response can be found in that bygone era. Wealthier people escaping to their cottages? From Defoe: “It is true, a vast many people fled, as I have observed, yet they were chiefly from the West End of the Town; and from that we call the Heart of the City, that is to say, among the wealthiest of the people.”

220px-Great_plague_of_london-1665

How about our daily obsession to see if the curve is “being bent” and watching the infection rates? In 1665 concern over the spread of the plague (called the distemper) caused people to look “towards the east end of town; and the weekly Bills showing the Increase of Burials in St. Giles’s Parish…the usual number of burials in a week, in the parishes of St Giles’s in the fields, and St. Andrew’s Holborn, were from 12 to 17 or 19 each, few more or less; but from the time that the Plague first began in St. Giles’s parish, it was observed that the ordinary burials increased in number considerably.”

What of economic activity? It has been estimated that somewhere between 25%-30% of the economy has been restricted, but in 1665 “All Master Workmen in Manufactures; especially such as belonged to Ornament, and the less necessary parts of the people’s dress, cloths, and furniture for houses; such as Riband Weavers, and other Weavers; Gold and Silverlace-makers, and…Seemstresses, Milleners, Shoemakers, Hat-makers and Glove Makers: also Upholserers, Joiners, Cabinet-Makers, Looking Glass Makers; and innumerable trades which depend upon such as these; I say the Master Workmen in such , stopped their work, dismissed their journeymen and workmen, and all their dependents.” You get the idea. The economy shut down.

source

Worried that people believe lunatic conspiracies, burning 5G towers across the world? Conspiracies depend on context, and in 1665 there were plenty of people pushing nonsense ideas, including astrologers spinning stories, and a host of charlatans that were “a worse sort of deceivers…for these petty thieves only deluded them to pick their pockets, and get their money; in which their wickedness, whatever it was, lay chiefly on the side of the deceiver’s deceiving, not upon the deceived.” Amulets, charms and potions, signs of the zodiac and any number of other bogus ways to defend the person from the plague were sold widely to a gullible public desperate for protection.

Great LevelerBut what of the predictions we keep hearing about? That life will be forever changed by the events we’re living through? While I have a great deal more to say about the nature of prognostication, I’ll keep my comments here brief. In general history shows that humans don’t tend towards radical changes following big, but temporary upheavals. Instead, crises like the one we are living through emphasize existing weaknesses within the society.

In his book “The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty First Century”, author Walter Scheidel points out that during the first big years of the plague, which came in the 1300s, the high death rates from plague changed the existing relationship between land and labour. For a society of feudal serfs this meant that serfs could demand wages from their lords, and the lords felt compelled to pay lest their lands remain fallow. Behaviours changed too, but only in as much that hedonism and charity increased to match the scale of the devastation people were living through. In response to our own situation charity, certainly that sanctioned by the government, has been widespread. Whether we might count the volume of baking as a form of hedonism will be left to others to decide.

Wages & Covid

But we should largely discount predictions of an economy collapsing and a society that will not wish to do anything ever again. Cruise ships, house sales, air traffic and eating out will return as confidence returns, though there will be losses along the way. But the real damage to the economy, and the people within it, will likely remain along lines that have already been established. As fewer Canadians work in good manufacturing jobs and more work in the service sector, earning marginal wages, they will continue to take the brunt of the economic hit of the lockdown. Just as likely will be that efforts to decouple production from China will lead to greater automation in manufacturing. In other words, more of the ingredients at the heart of the widening inequality gap.

The response to the coronavirus feels novel, to us. But in the scheme of history there doesn’t seem to be many other viable options. Life will return to normal not when the lockdowns are lifted, but when the virus is gone. But if we’re going to do something with our time it would be better spent figuring out how we’re going to address a worsening crisis of inequality, or brace ourselves for the next round of populist agitation.

Black Death 1

Information in this commentary is for informational purposes only and not meant to be personalized investment advice. The content has been prepared by Adrian Walker from sources believed to be accurate. The opinions expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent those of ACPI.

 

A Future Filled With Seniors, A Risk Yet Considered

*From Adrian: I began writing this on the weekend when I first learned of the conditions of the retirement residence in Dorval. Since then it has been revealed that nearly 50% of COVID-19 deaths in Canada are in long term care facilities. You can read more about that here from The Globe And Mail: Outbreak at senior’s homes linked…

Senior's Risk

Canada’s demographic story is neither unique nor surprising. Like many other nations (most nations in fact) its largest demographic is rapidly aging and requiring an increasing number of services in both health care and assisted/retirement living. Like many other nations its only population growth is through immigration as people have largely stopped having enough kids to grow the next generation. It is a slow moving story, but also an inevitable one.

This is both well known and uncontroversial. Long before John Ibbitson and Darrell Bricker had written Empty Planet, before Hans Rosling was using a clever moving chart at TED Talks to explain population trends, Canadian professor David K. Foot had written his book Boom Bust and Echo, detailing the future of the Canadian population. Finally those predictions are starting to be realised, and investors like myself are eagerly looking for ways to capitalize on an enormous demographic change.

One such way will be in Senior’s Residences, Assisted Living and Long Term Care Facilities. With Canadians living longer Statistics Canada points out that 7.1% of Canadians over 65 live in “collective dwellings” like retirement residences, a number that jumps to 31.1% for people 85 and older. That number holds true when we look at special care facilities, with 29.6% of people 85 and over.

Senior Demographics

The logic is appealing and direct. In 2016 16.9% of Canadian were 65 or older, and 2.2% were 85 or older. That was a 20% increase since 2011. With more Canadians approaching 65 and 85 than ever before the need for retirement residences, assisted living and long term care facilities will be greater than ever. Given the time it takes to secure and build new facilities, resistance at local levels to having them built and the high costs of creating and managing these businesses plus the government oversight, the business is as close to a sure thing that investors could hope to find. How could this go wrong?

I’ve been writing about demographics for a while. Here are some of the other things I’ve had to say:

The OHIP Gambit (October 23, 2015) – How an aging population will likely impact the province’s finances and imperil our health care.

The Demographic Deformation (October 9, 2015) – Lots of old people means an outsized impact on financial markets.

4 Reasons Why Planning for Retirement is Getting Harder (October 22, 2014) – People living longer means planning for longer with more uncertainty. Here’s four things impacting that planning.

Is It Time To End The “Senior” Citizen (April 27, 2015) – Being a senior comes with lots of perks, but increasingly meaningless when you’re likely to be a senior for two decades.

Enter 2020, a year that continues to feel like being slapped in the face by a large fish. Investors are accustomed to thinking very little about the business practices and oversight of the companies they invest in, but perhaps that should change, especially when they invest directly. Scandals, abuse and personal harm are matters for owners, and owners, even if removed from the daily running of a business should remain engaged. This remains especially true if the business deals in the wellness of people.

To my point, behold the unfolding scandal at a privately run senior’s residence in Montreal. I apologize at how graphic these details are and if you are at all squeamish please feel free to jump to the next paragraph. When health officials were finally called into the residence it was described as a “concentration camp”. Some residents had fallen on the floor and been left there. Others hadn’t been fed. Two people were found dead in their beds and hadn’t been recognized as such. Reportedly there were only two orderlies for the entire 134 bed facility. Some patients were so dehydrated they were unable to speak. Patients had been left in diapers, unchanged for several days. One in triple diapers with feces leaking out. These details are beyond horrific and have no place in a story about a Canadian senior’s residence. In total there had been 31 deaths over the previous few weeks.

As an investor, what should you think about such a discovery? Beyond its horror show details, more suited to a zombie apocalypse movie than real life, how should a lone investor think about their role in this?

One thing to consider is that due diligence should begin to increase the more certain an investment looks. Businesses with very high barriers to entry (the ease or difficulty of getting involved in a sector of the market), that are part of effective oligopolies or are essential services are not “set it and forget it” services. If anything the risk of abuse, neglect or corruption is higher the more essential and irreplaceable the businesses becomes. For the average person at home this may not be a feasible or realistic thing to do, and an individual investor may not be in a position to attend annual general meetings, or even be aware  of how to solicit and get answers from corporate boards.

This is one reason to consider using a mutual fund, or an investment that functions like a mutual fund that dedicates energy to analyzing and understanding businesses. It is also a reason for investors working with a financial advisor to ask questions about the nature of the investments they are buying, especially if they seem like “no lose” scenarios. If something makes intuitive sense to do, we should be clear as to why more aren’t doing it. Lastly, if you are investing in a private investment sold through an offering memorandum you should make sure someone is paying close attention to the details. There will always be blind corners in businesses, things you can not know, but you should have comfort that someone is providing verifiable oversight.

An aging population creates new investment opportunities, and senior’s living will be one of them. A business that’s cash rich and necessary, the appeal is obvious. But businesses that are responsible for providing care and looking after people’s well being also have the pull to maximize their profits, squeezing returns wherever they can. That push and pull should sit on everyone’s mind as they consider the new opportunities coming into focus.

Information in this commentary is for informational purposes only and not meant to be personalized investment advice. The content has been prepared by Adrian Walker from sources believed to be accurate. The opinions expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent those of ACPI.

All Eyes Are On China

People in China

China, the first hit by the coronavirus and the first to emerge from its enforced hibernation, is the global centre of attention as people watch to see how fast its economy can recover from the from the pandemic chaos unleashed in January. If China is able to bounce back quickly it will be good news for other countries and should raise spirits of investors, businesses, and governments that a global shut down may not lead to the worst of all worlds.

Early economic data is both more and less reassuring than one might expect. The impact of the lockdown in China took a sizeable bite out of the economy. The one year change in the value of exports is -15.9% (down already since the trade war began), industrial production was -13.5%, the fastest contraction in 30 years, while retail sales in China were down -20.5%.

China Data

But as things return to normal in the shadow of the pandemic, numbers may also be improving faster than we thought. Reported in the Financial Times on March 20, of the 80% of restaurants that had been closed in February, less than 40% are closed now. That’s good news for small businesses watching from across the Pacific. There is good news in manufacturing as well. The Purchasing Manager’s Index (PMI) has been officially reported at 52.0, which indicates that manufacturing is growing and not contracting. In February the PMI for China was 35.7, a record low for the country. That positive PMI result is helping extend gains today (March 31st) and giving hope to governments and markets that the worst of this pandemic may be shaken off faster than economists have predicted.

PMI China March

But economic activity is still well below 2019 levels and have a way to recover. In addition, China is one nation, the Western economy is made up of many, and the countries worst hit by the COVID-19 outbreaks have yet to peek and plateau. Italy, Spain and the United States are all fairing poorly, with Italy and Spain perhaps just finally reaching peak of cases now. The United States on the other hand now has more officially recorded cases than any other country, while New York, Catalonia, and Madrid are on track to pass Lombardia as the worst affected cities both in infections and mortalities.

Ft Capture Countries

The coronavirus remains the central unknown in this story. If tamed, can it be permanently subdued? If not, can new cases be dealt with on a case by case basis, or will we have to revert to aggressive forms of social distancing? Concerns remain about whether there will be a second wave of infections in Asia, while China has maintained that all new cases are being imported and can be dealt with proactive screening and testing.

FT Corona City Mortality

In Europe and North America the best news has been to see production of ventilators, masks and the deployment of field hospitals ramp up to deal with the threat. In the wider Asian region, wide testing and a willingness to follow government dictates and a focus on personal protection through the adoption of wide mask usage has had a direct impact on taming the virus in Taiwan, South Korea and Japan (the exception here might be Japan, which seems to have relaxed prematurely and now is considering shutting down Tokyo). But the best news may still be from China and a sudden and rapid improvement in their economy as restrictions are lifted. If prolonged the early rally than began last week, and has continued yesterday and through overnight trading may become the foundation for a more sustained recovery. If not markets may be thrown back into turmoil.*(Please note, markets seem to be in turmoil again.)

Covid-19 CHina Economy

Today, at the end of March, I think the potential for a slower recovery remains possible. Huge stimulus packages have been put in place by governments to help ease the worst of the economic fallout. Governments and their citizens seem to be facing the challenge head on, even if they have been late to the game. America’s enormous manufacturing capacity is being used usefully to deal with the pandemic (better late than never) and early economic news from China is encouraging, but should be treated with caution.

Information in this commentary is for informational purposes only and not meant to be personalized investment advice. The content has been prepared by Adrian Walker from sources believed to be accurate. The opinions expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent those of ACPI.

Will COVID-19 Make Real Estate Sick?

TSX Friday march 27

Markets have been bullish the last few days, moving off the most recent lows and easing the strain on investors who have watched their savings tumble by up to 35% since the beginning of the year. Any enthusiasm that this will be a sustained recovery should be tempered by the sheer scope of the economic disruption that we are facing, how early into the problem we currently are, or the potential for a pandemic disaster in the United States, which now has officially more cases than China ever did.

FT Capture

While I remain grateful for the respite we’ve seen, however fleeting, the problem that sticks out in my mind is that of the tangled web of Canadian debt, growing insolvencies, and hundreds of empty condos in downtown Toronto.

Problems rarely exist in isolation, and a problem’s ability to fester, grow and become malignant to the health of the wider body requires an interconnected set of resources to allow its most pernicious aspects to be deferred. In Canada the problem has been long known about, a high level of personal debt that has grown unabated since we missed the worst of 2008. What has allowed this problem to become wide ranging is a banking system more than happy to continue to finance home ownership, a real estate industry convinced that real estate can not fail, and a political class that has been prepared to look the other way on multiple issues including short term rental accommodation, in favour of rising property values to offset stagnant wages.

G&M Canada's Household Debt Burden

Recently I was at a round table event on Toronto real estate shortly after the COVID-19 situation started to gain real traction in late February. Benjamin Tal, Deputy Chief Economist for CIBC Capital Markets, described the Canadian real estate scene as “having 9 lives”, every time it seems like house prices can go no higher, something happens to prop up the market. At that moment it was the likely cut in interest rates and an easing of the stress test for mortgages which might breathe more life into the over heated housing market. But that was before international travel dropped off, before national states of emergency, before social distancing, before borders were closed, before essential services, before #lockdowns and #quarantinelife. Tal may not have been wrong conceptually, he simply hadn’t considered that the world might close for business.

Economist Cover

Canadian debt has been kept afloat because nothing could conceivably undermine it. And now, in downtown Toronto, condos sit empty. Airbnb hosts have no customers. Costs are mounting and there is no immediate end in sight to the pandemic, no end date that people can bank on. This week 3.3 million Americans filed for EI. In Canada the number was around 1 million. Even the most generous stimulus packages are unlikely to fix a debt problem as big as Canada’s.

True, there is some hope in mortgage deferrals, but scuttlebutt is that banks aren’t very liberal on this matter, telling many that they don’t qualify regardless of political pronouncements. This problem isn’t limited to Toronto. In Dublin rental accommodation jumped by 64% as COVID-19 became a crisis and people began looking for long term tenants to replace the short term ones. Short term thinking by investors, banks, and politicians has facilitated a serious economic problem. But to its enablers it seemed unlikely that there was a scenario that could conceivably expose its flaws.

It is becoming ever clearer that the focus for citizens in the 21st century should be on resilience. Expedience and an assumption that the stability of the recent past is prologue is now a dangerous and toxic combination, creating risks and magnifying bad decisions. Whether the coronavirus ushers in a fiscal reckoning for Canadians, or somehow we sidestep the worst of the crisis through quick action and nimble minds remains to be seen. But how much easier would life be for all had politicians adopted a more hostile stance to Airbnb pushing into the traditional rental markets? Had investors not eagerly dumped savings into condo developments, and had banks been more willing to question the wisdom of lending into what most acknowledged was a real estate bubble.

In December I wrote that the Canadian insolvency rate was the highest it had been in a decade. The city of Toronto recently took action to curb the growth of payday advance loan businesses, as though the problem was the businesses and not people in general need of credit to make ends meet. Whatever is coming in the wake of the COVID-19 shutdown, the issue long predates it. And if insolvencies go up and, for the first time in a long time, a portion of the Canadian real estate sector comes under real pressure there will be a lot of finger pointing at the individuals who have over extended themselves with an illiquid pool of investments. But the truth will be that this problem will have had many facilitators; enablers that were happy to ignore the problem, even help grow it, because they didn’t want to believe that things could go wrong or didn’t see it was their responsibility curb its malignancy.

Information in this commentary is for informational purposes only and not meant to be personalized investment advice. The content has been prepared by Adrian Walker from sources believed to be accurate. The opinions expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent those of ACPI.