Here are the facts at this moment in time: The growth of the Canadian economy continues to struggle in the wake of lower oil prices and a dropping loonie.
Interest rates are at historic lows. The Bank of Canada’s prime interest rate is now at .75%. The prime lending rate for consumers is 2.85%. Five-year fixed mortgage rates are between 2.64% and 2.79%. Five-year variable rates range from 2.15% to 2.3%.
House prices have spiked in a few hot spots across the country — most notably Toronto and Vancouver where prices have risen 10% and 11% respectively — which is skewing the national average.
Household debt is sitting at 163.3% as a percentage of disposable income according to Statistic Canada's recent report -- only marginally lower than the record 163.9% ratio the agency reported in the fourth quarter of 2014.
Should Canadians be concerned about their jobs? Will interest rates start to rise soon? Will there be a housing meltdown? Is household debt out-of-control?
Let’s see. The Bank of Canada’s (BoC) Governor Stephen Poloz, in his latest statement, was clear about one thing — he was confident that the regulatory changes to mortgage lending was working and those taking on mortgages were able to pay them. So, as far as interest rates, it’s pretty safe to say, barring any major economic upheaval, that low interest rates are here to stay until the economy starts to grow.
The Chair of the US Federal Reserve Janet Yellen announced recently that interest rate hikes are coming. Yellen said if the American recovery continues, rates with rise this year. As the US economy starts to pick up steam, then Canada’s economy will likely follow.
At this time consumers are taking advantage of low rates to pay down mortgage debt. A recent survey by Manulife Bank of Canada found that 40% of homeowners are starting to pay off their mortgages ahead of schedule. Manulife found that 18% made extra lump-sum payments in the past year, while 17% increased their regular payments which reduces amortization. Another five per cent did both.
The annual survey of home buying habits by the Canadian Association of Accredited Mortgage Professionals (CAAMP) finds the same thing. CAAMP found that first-time buyers are, on average, putting 21% down and expect to tighten up amortization periods from 25 years to 20 by increasing their payments.
If Poloz was truly concerned about debt then raising interest rates would quickly nip that worry. But raising interest rates would not help what Poloz sees as a bigger concern — weak exports and business spending. Basically, Canada’s economy is stagnant. What the BoC does monitor closely is the rate of inflation, which it aims to keep between 1% and 3%. If it starts to edge closer to the 3% rate, then we can expect some changes. The current inflation rate is hovering around the 2% mark.
House price increases may still be a concern; however, there is evidence that prices are stabilizing. According to the Canadian Real Estate Association (CREA) only half of Canadian provinces can expect house prices to increase.
Canada Mortgage and Hosing Corporation (CMC) recently reported that while there are some concerns about overheated regional markets, the overall national risk remains low.
While newspaper headlines tend to be somewhat controversial, the reality is that many Canadians are getting better educated financially, are putting themselves in stronger financial positions and are more resilient to whatever is happening in the country.