Friday, March 23, 2012

Phew… Canadian economy back to normal

The latest headlines tell us that the inflation rate rose up a notch in February due to higher gas and food prices. Core inflation – the underlying pressure on consumer goods, excluding volatile items such as energy and fresh foods – rose two notches to 2.3 per cent, above the Bank of Canada’s 2-per-cent target line. 

 The Canadian dollar is down 0.39 of a cent to 100.7 cents US. because prices for commodities are down.
Payroll is only slightly outpacing the inflation rate but employment rates are improving.

 The spring housing market is heating up; house prices are balancing out except in sweltering hot cities like Toronto and Vancouver.  

And the Bank of Canada may raise the prime lending rate later this year.

 What does it all mean?  The economy is getting back to normal.

Since the U.S. housing downturn in 2007 most economic news worldwide has been negative, as one economist said recently, punctuated with terms such as “economic crisis”, “ roller-coaster markets”,  “financial panic,” and “heightened level of uncertainty”.

If we take a snapshot of the world today we find that equity markets have calmed down – the stock exchanges are up and down but the volatility has eased.

The European crisis is still a mess but pressure has eased a down a bit.

The U.S. economy is improving and the Federal Reserve is much more upbeat with its reports.

In Canada, the economic waters have calmed considerably. We probably won’t see a housing bubble burst; the West is booming again and interest rates are going to rise later this year or in early 2013.

The big news coming out of Ottawa is not about staving off financial ruin but the same old stuff like fighting deficits, battles over health care transfers, trade issues and some controversies like robocalls. 

Pretty much back to normal!

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Canada getting ready to grow

Two interesting updates to Canada’s economy show that the country is growing again, with consumer confidence improving. And along with climbing household debt, net worth is also climbing. However, the more interesting stat  we should be looking at is the employment number.

Improving global conditions have resulted in a few economists, including those at Royal Bank of Canada, Toronto-Dominion Bank, UBS Securities Canada and the University of Toronto, to up their economic growth forecasts for this year. These economists see an improvement in consumer confidence as well as a business community ready to grow. According to Statistics Canada’s investment intentions survey, which was released last month, Canadian businesses plan to boost investment by 6.2 per cent to $306.3-billion this year – that investment would be at a record level.

As for net worth climbing, deputy chief economist at BMO Nesbitt Burns Douglas Porter said in an interview with the Globe and Mail that we should perhaps look at the rising-debt-income ratio in new terms. Although that ratio is set to rise even more – from approx. 151% to about 160% -- net worth now stands at 596% of disposable income.

"The most frequent comeback is that the value of assets can come and go,” Porter said. “But debt endures. But even comparing financial assets to household debt still shows Canadian households overall have a big cushion."

At the end of last year, financial assets in Canada were worth $4.3-trillion, or more than 400 per cent of disposable income and subtracting household debt leaves a net financial asset ratio to income of 255 per cent.

With all the good the news about the economy, there is one number to watch – the employment number. An analysis of the U.S. situation shows that one contributor to the mortgage meltdown was the rapid fall of employment. Even in Canada, during recessionary periods, we see the number of foreclosures up and house prices falling. It happened in Calgary in the early 80s and in Ontario in the early 90s.

So what do we know about Canada’s employment?

Well, employment was unchanged in February. Compared with 12 months earlier, employment was up by 121,000. If we couple that with the recent good news about consumer and business confidence, then we can safely assume that employment numbers are going in the right direction – up.

Another report from Statistics Canada said the economy operated at 80.5 per cent of its production capacity in the fourth quarter, up half a point from the third quarter.  This has been rising steadily since the second quarter of 2009.

The capacity utilization rate is one of the key measures used by the Bank of Canada when it sets its interest rates. If the rate is too high, the central bank gets concerned about inflation. However, the rate of 80.5 per cent in the fourth quarter of 2011 was below that of 83.4 per cent recorded in the first quarter of 2007 before the recession.

Bottom line, Canada is poised to grow.

Monday, March 12, 2012

BMO’s Slap in the Face

Guest Blog by Dan Pultr, Director Sales, B.C.

The squeaky wheels are turning in the mortgage industry once again, not that they truly ever stop.  On the same day that the Bank of Canada announced it would hold the overnight lending rate at 1%, BMO pulled the trigger to start a rate war in the mortgage industry. 

But as frustrating as a rate war may be for the mortgage industry and bank profits, we brokers are silently cheering because this additional publicity will bring a renewed focus to the mortgage market; and the more noise generated by the banks , the more questions and more phone calls we get from clients.  As mortgage professionals, one of our goals is to educate the consumer to ensure they make the very best decision when it comes to their mortgage. 

Keeping with the spirit of education, I think it’s prudent to clarify the criteria surrounding this rate special, and the article in Canadian Mortgage Trends outlines it quite clearly:
  •  A Lower Maximum Amortization:  25 years versus 30-40 years elsewhere
  •   Less Lump-sum Pre-payment Ability:  10% maximum per year (i.e., 1/2 of the 20% that BMO normally allows)
  •  A Smaller Payment Increase Option:  Up to 10%, once per year (again, 1/2 of the 20% that BMO normally allows)
  • A Locked Term:  The Low-rate Mortgage is fully closed unless you sell the property, refinance (with BMO only), or early renew into another BMO mortgage. In other words, unless you sell, you’re not leaving BMO for 5 years, like it or not.
What I find most interesting about this strategy to drive business is the timing and backdrop of it.  BMO decided in 2007 to exit the mortgage broker channel.  As of 2011 its mortgage market share was the lowest among the Big 6 banks, sitting unofficially at $71 billion in comparison to $145 billion the other banks enjoyed.  Most would say that gives them all the more reason to start a rate war, but driving business solely on price has never been the most effective measure, otherwise we’d all be driving Pintos.

What really is most eye opening about this is that BMO has completely disregarded the warnings of leading economists, Mark Carney and Jim Flaherty about increasing household debt levels. 

Even as Mark Carney announced that the overnight rate will remain at 1%, he also said that household debt continues to be the biggest domestic risk.  This comment comes only days after Jim Flaherty was quoted as saying, "I again encourage Canadians to be careful in the amount of debt they take on in terms of residential mortgages because rates will go up some day.”

So while some see this rate war as frustrating, I see it as an opportunity to educate our clients on their options.  However, if I were Mark Carney or Jim Flaherty, I’d see it as a slap in the face.  You be the judge.

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Debt-to-income revisited

Private sector economists met with Finance Minister earlier this week to discuss the state of the economy in preparation for the March 29 budget. According to news reports, it was a pretty upbeat session. The major concerns of the past year – the European debt crisis, the recession in the U.S., a sluggish economy, have all but disappeared. However, when the discussion turned to the housing market, there was no consensus. No surprise there. Economists predict the market will go in a certain direction and the market does something else. There was concern for the condo market and amortization periods, probably because those are all that’s left to be concerned about. And of course, interest rates are still low, which continues to fuel warnings about household debt.  So the government has once again warned Canadians about taking on too much debt in terms of their residential mortgages.

The Bank of Canada Review, which focuses on household debt and changes in the value of Canadian's single-most important asset -- their homes – said, “Household indebtedness is not unique to Canada.  The review also said the Canadian housing market has not exhibited the excesses seen in other countries, where severe economic disruptions have occurred in recent years.”

Do we really have something to worry about?

Finance Minister Jim Flaherty said recently, "People are paying down their consumer debts more than they used to and that's a good thing in terms of personal and family responsibility because credit card debt, as we all know, is very expensive debt in terms of interest rates. On the housing market, we're seeing some moderation of late in good parts of residential mortgage markets.”

So let’s take a look at debt and income. Debt includes all debt and unsecured debt in the form of credit cards and unsecured lines of credit and loans. Secured debt or using the equity in a home is the most common and the cheapest money, whether refinancing for debt consolidation or for home improvements.   While it’s true that by increasing a mortgage using low interest rates puts the home owner at risk if rates should climb, a survey by the Canadian Association of Accredited Mortgage Professionals (CAAMP) found that borrowers can easily cover an increase in monthly payments.

Unsecured debt is more of a worry since it has been a major contributor to the pace and the growth of household debt – a point that mortgage brokers have tried to get across and was finally confirmed by Statistics Canada. Interestingly, since the government and the Bank of Canada started warning consumers last year to stop increasing their household debt, the response has been positive. Canadians started paying down their credit cards and loans. The latest national credit trends report from Equifax Canada said the average credit card debt fell in 2011 by 3.4 per cent. The Equifax report also found a "remarkable" improvement in consumer delinquencies, or non-payments, and bankruptcies in 2011 from record numbers in the prior two years.

Now, let’s take a look at income. If income goes up and debt remains constant the debt-to-income ratio decreases. It’s a shock to hear the media reporting that the consumer debt-to-income ratio is 154%, however; the reason for that is incomes are not rising. So, in reality, it’s an income issue more so than a debt issue.

But now with news that the economy will grow modestly in 2012 and 2013, and manufacturing set to grow, incomes will likely follow suit. Despite rumblings that public sector jobs will be affected in the upcoming budget, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty has enough awareness of the effects of job losses on the Canadian economy that he will not put its tenuous growth at risk.

Thursday, March 01, 2012

Changing financial landscape a challenge for mortgage industry

Guest Blog by Mark Kerzner, President TMG The Mortgage Group

Right now our industry is being inundated with news of change and uncertainty. It was August 2007 when we felt the first ripple on the Canadian financial landscape. That’s when holders of approximately $30 billion of ABCPs (Asset Backed Commercial Paper) were facing the prospect of huge losses. What followed was a period of tightened liquidity, the unravelling of the U.S. mortgage securitization markets, loss of confidence in the markets, plummeting U.S. home values and bailouts.

That seems like such a long time ago. The saying "time heals all wounds" is a reminder that we desensitize with the passing of time, when the reality we lived through becomes a mere memory. What has helped us here in Canada is that in the midst of the global economic crisis, when the rest of the world was in meltdown mode, we felt only small waves. Today, our housing markets are strong, we continue to borrow and invest, our employment numbers have remained relatively healthy (in comparison with those in the G20), our arrears numbers have remained at less than half of one percent, and our economy continues to grow.

Our Government, our lenders and our own industry have been working on the premise of needing to protect Canadian consumers. Protect their future with respect to increased future borrowing costs. Protect their housing investments by trying to stave off the notion of a real estate bubble. And protect their ability to manage their debt levels on incomes that are not rising in step.

 Perhaps the most over-hyped ratio in the mortgage lending environment in the past few years is debt-to-income. Its upward sloping line on a graph has been etched in our minds. We have been warned about it, we have been endlessly compared to the U.S., our Minister of Finance has take actions to alter lending guidelines and the Governor of the Bank of Canada has repeatedly warned us of the consequences.  What seems to be forgotten in the whole discussion are two pretty important words, "debt" and "income". Let’s examine these terms:

Debt – this includes all debt, secured and unsecured. Secured lending in the form of mortgages is the slowest growing segment of the debt world yet it is the cheapest. The most common use for refinancing is debt consolidation. The second most common reason is home improvements and renovations.

It is important to understand that all debt cannot be attributed to outstanding mortgages. While it catches the majority of our attention it is really our debt siblings -- credit cards and secured and unsecured credit lines -- that are contributing to the fast pace growth of consumer debt and yes, at higher interest rates. While it is often the case to focus on the "oldest child" in this case we need to turn our attention to the rest of the family.

Income – this one is a little simpler. When calculating debt to income ratios we divide total debt by total income. If income goes up and debt remains constant the ratio decreases. What we are seeing in Canada is the inverse. Income is not rising. So as much as this is being portrayed as a debt issue in actual fact it is very much an income issue as well.

CIBC published an interesting market report recently on this issue and compared us to other countries --Canada held up very well. The report also said that debt is a very generic term and that those heavy habitual debtors are taking on even more debt, which means the majority of consumers with manageable debt loads are being painted with the same brush strokes as the few heavy debtors.

As mortgage professionals we must maintain our belief that we provide value. As a client’s advocate we are uniquely positioned to explain to them the context of all this news and noise. At the same time we are personally in the middle of it with respect to our livelihood. I feel we are living through one of the most interesting story lines of the current economic recovery. Strong companies and successful hard working brokers and agents will succeed. Now is not the time to dwell. Now is the time to lead.