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.

Super Cool New Device Won’t Fix the Economy

Apple just unveiled its new watch (called the Apple Watch no less) and briefly I watched the stock price climb quickly as the promise of Apple’s great new thing came to life. But before Apple had its big webcast yesterday, I was actually having a look at this nifty thing called NAVDY.

NAVDY seems like a great idea and its one of many many great things that is regularly and constantly being developed by an increasingly connected world that funds great ideas through websites like kickstarter.com. But like many new great things that I see, most of them won’t dramatically change the economy in any significant way. Specifically, none of these new businesses will create a great number of new jobs.

This may seem like a small point to quibble over, however when we look through the prominent industries that tend to occupy the business sections of newspapers, like Apple Computers, you begin to realize that very few of these businesses do much in the way of employment. Improvements in productivity, automation and robotics continue to eat away at an industrial base that forces young people into retail sectors, and an older generation into early retirement.

More people are employed in Canada year-over-year, however it has involved net losses in high employment sectors combined with net gains in high-education sectors.
More people are employed in Canada year-over-year, however it has involved net losses in high employment sectors combined with net gains in high-education sectors. Many of the jobs that employ lots of Canadians present opportunities for automation. Click on the image to view a larger version.
From Stats-Can - the widening gap in unemployment spells. Being employed in manufacturing meant you could be out of work longer in Canada than in non-manufacturing based jobs.
From Stats-Can – the widening gap in unemployment spells. Being employed in manufacturing meant you could be out of work longer in Canada than in non-manufacturing based jobs.

Where there were once middle class factory jobs for thousands of Canadians they are now increasingly rare, and often exist through substantial subsidization from the provincial or federal government.

This story isn’t new. In fact it’s so old now that the first real impact of it dates back to the 1980s. But as time marches on and we are increasingly numb to this reality it may have escaped our attention just how great a challenge this is posing to our society.

For instance, today, Vox.com posted an article about “Why you need a bachelor’s degree to be a secretary“, focusing on how many jobs are “up-credentialing”.

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Industrial decline also plays an indirect role in rising housing markets in cities. It’s easy to see that falling employment in traditionally well paying blue-collar sectors may contribute to higher crime rates and stagnant wages, but it also tells us where it makes the most sense to live. Young Canadians finishing university are unlikely to move back to Windsor when the best jobs are now in Toronto, fuelling a condo boom while raising housing prices across the city to the point of being unaffordable to new families.

From the Economist, January 18, 2014: Briefing: The Future of Jobs - Retail services continue to grow as other market sectors decline.
From the Economist, January 18, 2014: Briefing: The Future of Jobs – Retail services continue to grow as other market sectors decline.

All of this speaks to a larger and more looming issue for Canadians, which is that continued improvements in automation place long term pressure on things like infrastructure and wealth distribution and raise other questions about middle class viability. In other words, we seem eager to introduce new technologies into our lives, but each of these technologies doesn’t just reduce jobs, they reduce jobs that employ lots of people. The January 18th, 2014 Economist ran a frightening story about this kind of automation and that up to 47% of existing jobs could come under pressure by new forms of cost effective robotics and computers.

It’s often hard to see changes that are incrementally slow, but changes are occurring, and over the coming years and decades these changes will likely shake out in ways that we aren’t expecting. But for Canadians looking to save and retire in the future, many of these trends are coming together in worrying ways. In the form of higher educational costs, more limited job opportunities, higher costs of living and potential unemployability, and sadly the new industries and businesses we are quick to promote won’t likely be enough to stave off a society that is undergoing a significant shift in how it employs people.

All of this is a lot to explain in a single article. But if you’d like a simple video that does a good job of scaring you, please watch this video by Youtuber CPG Grey, whose excellent video from a few weeks ago got widely picked up and shared on the web. Otherwise, if you’d like to talk about getting set-up with a savings plan, either for yourselves and kids please give me a call!