Thursday, July 12, 2012

Could US fallout account for recent mortgage changes?

Canadians have, on average, 15 years left on their mortgages, according to a survey released last week by BMO Bank of Montreal. And, according to a recent editorial in the Globe and Mail Canadians hold more than twice as much real estate and almost four times as much equity in it than Americans. The latest Environics Analytics WealthScapes data, found the average household net worth in Canada was $363,202 in 2011; in the U.S. it was $319,970, making the average Canadian household more than $40,000 richer than the average American household.

Yet, we keep getting dire warnings that we are financially overextending ourselves and increasing our debt load. We hear talk of housing bubbles and market crashes. And yet our dollar remains strong, our GDP has increased, our resource sector is hot and our job numbers are going up, albeit at a snail’s pace, but going up nonetheless.

Canadians have been, traditionally, more cautious than Americans. However, in recent years, we have loosened the hold on our own personal financial policies and started to spend, not unlike American households did before its economic downturn in 2008.

Canadians also learn quickly. When the messages about the increases in household debt started to appear in media reports, coupled with warnings from the government and the Bank of Canada, consumers listened and started to curb their spending and made plans to decrease their debt. However the government did not believe it was happening fast enough and implemented changes to curb spending, especially as it pertained to mortgages.  Perhaps the Minister of Finance knew something we didn’t.

Last week, CBC Canada reported the findings of Nanos Research that showed how Americans dealt with the economic downturn – it wasn’t a pretty picture. Economic numbers from the US Census Bureau show that between 2005 and 2010, American households lost 35 per cent of their average net worth. It points to two things: the decline of U.S. real estate values and changes in the stock market.

Perhaps Finance Minister Jim Flaherty’s saw this as an omen for cities such as Vancouver and Toronto, where housing bubbles could be a concern. And despite media reports questioning his reasons for making the latest round of mortgage rule changes, it might be as he says -- protecting Canadians with high debt loads against the eventual rise in interest rates.

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