Carney to weigh in on housing market

Jim McLeod June 16, 2011

VANCOUVER — Canada’s housing market is entering overheated territory and many Canadians could be financially hurt once interest rates begin to rise, Bank of Canada governor Mark Carney is warning.

The central banker took his case for moderation to Vancouver, the epicentre of Canada’s hot housing market where he says home prices are now on par with Hong Kong and Sydney, Australia as they relate to average incomes.

And some sectors of the market, like condos in big cities, could overshoot because of speculation from foreign investors.

The housing market is still expected to moderate, he said, but recent signals have been mixed.

Carney has been cautioning Canadians for about two year against getting overextended on mortgage borrowing, but Wednesday’s speech to the Vancouver Board of Trade suggested some frustration that his words have mostly fallen on deaf ears.

The governor said he has been expecting the housing market to slow, but besides some stuttering signals, it has picked up again of late along with borrowing and mortgage credit.

“Mortgage credit growth slowed in April, reinforcing the view that the particularly strong increase in borrowing in the first quarter (of 2011) was temporary,” he said.

“Nonetheless, at five per cent annual rate, growth in mortgage credit in April was slower but not slow, particularly given the sustained above-trend increases of recent years.”

The speech came on the day the Canadian Real Estate Association released new data showing that average resale home prices rose 8.6 per cent in May from a year ago, and that in Vancouver prices were up 25.7 per cent to $831,555.

At those levels, Carney said Vancouverites are paying 11 times family household income for a home, a multiple similar to global housing hot spots Hong Kong and Sydney, Australia.

The situation is not as dramatic in the rest of the country, but it’s bad enough, he said.

He notes that it took nearly 12 years for real estate investment to regain its peak after the 1990s recession. It has taken a year and a half this time and, in fact, average home prices are now 13 per cent higher than where they stood before the 2008-2009 slump.

Carney takes some of the blame for the unprecedented run-up in prices, since the key difference between the two eras is that he drove interest rates down to historic lows in order to salvage the economy. The policy succeeded, but at a cost of driving investment from more productive outlets of the economy to housing.

But he also lays some blame on home buyers, who he implies should know better. He said some Canadians are taking on mortgages as if they believe current ultra-low rates will last forever. They won’t, he warns.

“Rates will not remain at their current levels forever,” he said. “(And) the impact of eventual increases is likely to be greater than in previous cycles.”

A four per cent real mortgage interest rate would see home affordability in Canada fall to the worst level in 16 years, he said. The current real mortgage interest rate, which excludes inflation, is about 2.4 per cent.

Other than issuing a general alert, Carney gives few hints what he can do about it and implies that the ball is in the federal government’s court to tighten borrowing requirements again if necessary.

Finance Minister Jim Flaherty this week also expressed concern with household debt — now amounting to a record $1.5 trillion in the aggregate — and noted he has tightened mortgage requirements three times in the past three years.

Carney suggested in his speech that he will use monetary policy, or interest rate setting, to impact the inflation rate and not exclusively the housing market.

Extract from the Red Deer Advocate

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