The continued strength in the market comes amid a debate in Canada over whether a housing bubble is building and what policymakers should do about it. Last week, Canada’s banking regulator, OSFI, said it is examining whether to set up a new higher minimum benchmark interest rate of 5.25% to determine whether people qualify for uninsured mortgages, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government has said it is looking to impose a tax on foreign, non-resident homeowners. Some economists have argued these steps aren’t enough, though March’s increase in supply may ease some of these concerns.
The simplest explanation for why the housing market has been so strong is the dramatic decline in mortgage rates generated by the Bank of Canada’s easing in monetary policy in March 2020 with the onset of the pandemic. The central bank’s policy move did precisely what it was intended to achieve, even though it may now be proving counterproductive. Trying to now halt or temper demand through a myriad of additional complex rules is not only inefficient but also risks unintended consequences.
The dramatic decline in mortgage rates to record low levels boosted the purchasing power of households. Also, many were able to buy further away from expensive cities also easing the burden of home purchases of household expenses. This not only occurred across Canada, but we observed the same phenomenon in many countries around the world. Home price inflation has been greatest the further you go out from city centres.
I agree with Beata Caranci, SVP & Chief Economist of TD Bank when she pointed out that, “Canada already has a number of safety levers in place around household financial risks. In fact, the IMF concluded in January 2020 that Canada’s “macroprudential stance is broadly adequate” and the stance was relatively tight, reflecting the six rounds of tightening mortgage insurance rules by the Department of Finance. Provinces and cities have also enacted measures over the years to discourage speculative activity via taxing vacant properties or upping land transfer taxes.”
Buyers are not irrational when they are concerned about being priced out of a home purchase. For the past thirty years, despite all the hype about housing bubbles in cities like Vancouver and Toronto, residential real estate has been a great investment and far less volatile than alternative uses of funds. This has been boosted by Canada’s immigration policy which has triggered the strongest population growth among the G7 countries. Property taxes and land transfer taxes are already among the highest in the world and, unlike the US, mortgage payments and property taxes are not tax-deductible.
The bulk of the new housing supply has been in multi-unit housing. The pandemic has highlighted the value of a much-coveted single-family home. That has been reflected in the surge in the prices of such homes, which were still affordable in heretofore untapped markets well beyond the major cities. Why shouldn’t today’s dual-income households aspire to the same homeownership dreams their parents fulfilled? Even after this boom in housing, which will no doubt slow as the pandemic ends and interest rates return to more normal levels, delinquency rates on outstanding mortgages will remain low. The guardrails put in place by the series of actions since 2016–reducing amortizations, increasing minimum downpayments, and tightening mortgage stress testing requirements–all but guarantee that in the strong economic recovery from the pandemic, credit risks are already sufficiently low.
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