By David Larock
Statistics Canada recently changed the way it calculates key economic data to bring its methods into line with agreed upon international accounting standards. As a result, the debt-to-income ratio for the average Canadian household shot up 11 per cent, literally overnight, to 163 per cent (a record high).
This has inspired lots of foreboding talk about how our “soaring” household debt-to-income levels are now higher than U.S. debt-to-income ratios were at the peak of their housing bubble. That may be technically true, but it is also totally misleading.
That’s because the standard method for calculating this ratio uses after-tax income, which isn’t a fair comparison because Canadian personal income taxes cover health care costs and American personal income taxes don’t. (To put this difference in perspective, according to my initial research the average American spends anywhere from 10 per cent to 20 per cent of their after-tax income on health-care related costs.)
While it has become fashionable to predict that Canada is headed for a U.S.-style housing crash, most economists still think that is unlikely and they use plenty of data to support their position.
To be clear, I readily agree that our household debt levels are too high and that’s why I have consistently supported the federal government’s attempts to reign in borrowing by changing the lending policies and regulations used by CMHC and OSFI. But that’s a far cry from believing that our debt levels are about to cause our houses to start spontaneously combusting. (Did I just give Maclean’s an idea for their next apocalyptic magazine cover … or have they used that one already?)
Before you start loading up on canned soup and fire extinguishers, consider this sampling of recent comments from the experts I read:
* A report by BMO economists in January 2012 first pointed out the flaw in using after-tax income to compare Canadian and U.S. debt-to-income ratio levels. Instead, they argued that using a debt-to-gross income ratio would provide a better apples-to-apples comparison. Using this revised methodology, BMO economist Sal Guatieri reported recently that Canada’s debt-to-gross income ratio (121 per cent) is still well below both the current (146 per cent) and peak (166 per cent) U.S. levels. That presents a very different comparison from the popular one being bandied about in much of the mainstream media.
* David Rosenberg, a well-known Canadian economist, wrote recently that our ratio of housing starts to the civilian population is “not far off the average of the last 10 years, whereas as in the U.S. back in the 2006-07 peak, that ratio was 25 per cent above the long-run norm.” In other words, Canada has not seen the kind of short-term spike in speculative real-estate investing/borrowing that we saw in the U.S. during the latter stages of their housing bubble.
* Mr. Rosenberg also notes that Canadian policy makers and regulators have been pro-active in responding to our rising household debt levels while their U.S counterparts were basically asleep at the switch until it was too late (hyperbole mine).
* Further to that last point, Benjamin Tal, an economist with CIBC, recently noted in an interview with Rob Carrick that overall Canadian household debt is now rising at its slowest pace in 10 years, while consumer debt levels are actually falling for the first time in 20 years. That kind of momentum makes for a trend in the right direction.
* In a separate report, Tal notes that the crash in U.S. house prices was far more extreme in cities with above-average levels of sub-prime lending, where prices corrected by an average of 40 per cent. This is more than double the average decline seen in U.S. cities with below-average levels of subprime loans.
“Eradicate subprime from the U.S. housing market and, instead of the most severe house price meltdown since the Great Depression, you get a soft landing.” By comparison, Canadian subprime loans account for about seven per cent of our total mortgage debt outstanding while U.S. subprime loans peaked at a little under 25 per cent of their total mortgage debt outstanding before their housing crash.
The bottom line: Like any informed observer who can see beyond his own short-term self interest to what is best for the whole economy over the long term; I am concerned about how ultra-low interest rates have pushed our household debt levels to record highs. But I reject the implication that we have driven over the debt cliff to financial ruin and are now in free fall just waiting to hit the ground.
David Larock is an independent mortgage planner and industry insider specializing in helping clients purchase, refinance or renew their mortgages. His posts appear weekly on his blog,
One thing is for sure, the Halifax Real Estate market is still alive and well. Last week alone, there were as many listings sold as there were new listings. Despite speculation about a housing bubble, likely from negative press on the Toronto and Vancouver housing markets, the Halifax housing market continues to thrive.
The Halifax Peninsula is the hottest spot on the map. Property from single family homes to condos are being gobbled up within a matter of days. Many of these properties are in such high demand that bidding wars are a common place. Asking prices eventually sit lower than the actual sale price. This is good news for sellers in this area as they are likely to bank on a good return. For buyers, this is equally good as it indicates a healthy market place and a higher chance of incremental growth on the value of their homes. As the city continues its outward expansion, the centre of the city becomes more and more valuable.
Mainland Halifax has seen nearly the same kind of demand, with homes in former suburban areas lasting no more than a few weeks. Though significantly lower in price, these properties fetch a pretty penny for any seller.
The biggest spike, in terms of sales increase and price increase, is seen within the Sackville and Dartmouth areas. Properties in this area, formerly undervalued, are now the suburbs that Mainland Halifax used to be. As the core densifies, the outskirts are seeing large spikes. If you’re buying your first home, I highly recommend considering these areas as they are still affordable and have not yet reached their peak of worth.
Bedford continues to lead with the highest priced homes in municipality. As it continues to grow past the 102, old Bedford is solidifying its grasp on high prices and average turnover.
So, in essence, the housing market in Halifax is stronger than ever. Rates continue to hover low, making affordability less of an issue for first timers and anyone looking to downsize.
My only advice for buyers - use an agent. It costs you nothing in the form of commissions and the agent will do all the work and protect you from the other side. The listing agents have their sellers best interests in mind and will only do the paperwork for you, nothing else.
When we take a look at the major cities in Canada and the United States, we see a growing trend – increased urbanization similar to one hundred years ago, an increasingly young professional working class, a gentrification of older structures in the downtown cores of major cities. New York and Toronto, the largest of each country’s respective cities, has seen this change in demographic the most. Both cities have an immeasurable amount of history, but manage to retain their distinctive identities despite increased urbanization and urban development. However, Halifax is in an awkward spot – at the moment we are on the cusp of being a major city, while still retaining many of the qualities of a large town. The downtown core is stale and not moving readily, and the city continues with its outward expansion. City council insists that no buildings block the view of Citadel Hill – a seemingly reasonable request – yet manages to block or stall any major development proposal that comes its way. Most recently, this stall tactic involves the newly proposed World Trade and Convention Centre off Argyle Street. What I advocate is for city council to continue to build up. I am pushing for this because there are benefits for the city at large and for its residents. Building up increases tax revenue far greater for a city like ours, without occupying as much space as an entire subdivision. As well, with continued growth in the form of condos and office buildings, Halifax will be attracting more young professionals, more money and more immigration. This will allow our great city to mature and develop like many of the other major urban centres across North America. The future of Halifax is not to continue to expand into the Hinterland, but to rise to the challenge and build up! To visit my property site please click on my Halifax Real Estate – A Modern Approachwebsite!