Oh No, Canada! Are We Watching Another North American Financial Crisis Unfold?

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Photo-Illustration by Alexander Ho for TIME; Getty Images

For some time during and after the financial crisis, it was fashionable to point to Canada as a paragon of fiscal and regulatory prudence. In the years leading up to the crisis, the Canadian government ran budget surpluses, which enabled it to stimulate the economy without creating huge debt loads we now see in Greece and Spain. In addition, the Canadian banking system faced stricter capital requirements and were more risk-averse than their American and European counterparts. Perhaps most important, Canada avoided the sort of real estate bubbles seen in the U.S. and Great Britain due to tighter lending standards and the absence of mortgage interest deductibility — at least until recently.

For the past year or more, Canadian officials have nervously watched as household debt levels has risen to worrying heights, fueled by increased mortgage borrowing. As The Wall Street Journal reported this week:

“Borrowing to buy property has helped make Canadians some of the most leveraged consumers in the world, at a time when their counterparts in other heavily indebted countries—such as the U.S.—are digging out. Household debt is now 163.4% of disposable income in Canada, close to the U.S. level at the height of the subprime crisis.”

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Just like in the U.S., housing prices in Canada steadily rose in the decade immediately preceding the financial crisis, soaring 198% over ten years. They dipped slightly during the global recession, but bounced back quickly between 2009 and the beginning of this year, fueled in part by a low interest rate policy the Bank of Canada put in place to nurse the Canadian economy through the global economic slowdown. Real estate prices have risen so high, in fact, that many housing analysts believe the bubble is about to burst. Housing economist Robert Schiller told CBC news in September, “I worry that what is happening in Canada is kind of a slow-motion version of what happened in the U.S.”

Indeed there are signs that the party is already over. Due in part to efforts by the Canadian government to strengthen lending standards, home prices in Canada nationwide dipped year over year in October, and declined in many of the key local markets as well, according to a recent report in Reuters. “With cooling evident in several major cities, speculation has turned to whether the slowdown will be a soft landing or a crash,” the report said.

What will determine the difference between a soft landing or a thudding crash like the one the U.S. experienced in 2007? Lending standards are a big part of the equation. In the run up to the bursting of the American real estate bubble, many homeowners bought homes with little money down and financed the purchases with loans that had low teaser rates that would jump higher a few years into the life of the mortgage. Those sorts of products swamped many homeowners in short order, and also meant that they had virtually no equity cushion when lenders came to foreclose. The lack of equity cushion meant that banks — who were over-indebted themselves due to poor regulatory oversight — had to resell the homes at steep losses, feeding the panic that soon turned into a full-blown housing crisis.

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Canada, on the other hand, requires homeowners to put at least 20% down on a home, or to purchase mortgage insurance from the the Canadian Mortgage Housing Corporation (CMCH), a federal agency. Furthermore, Canadian lenders are in a much better position than U.S. banks were to absorb losses from any housing downturn. As CIBC economist Benjamin Tal told CBC news:

“The Canada of today is very different than a pre-recession U.S., namely as far as borrower profiles are concerned . . . Therefore, when it comes to jitters regarding a U.S.-type meltdown here at home, the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

Of course, few analysts in America predicted that the U.S. real estate market would blow up in the spectacular fashion it did in 2007, either. As financial blogger Pater Tenebrarum puts it:

“This kind of thinking has things exactly the wrong way around. It is precisely because such a state-owned guarantor of mortgages exists that the vaunted lending standards of Canada’s banks have increasingly gone out of the window as the bubble has grown. Today some $500 billion, or 50% of Canada’s outstanding mortgages are considered ‘high risk’ according to the Financial Post . . . Through CMHC and government guarantees for privately held mortgage insurers Genworth Capital and Canada Guarantee, Canadian tax payers are on the hook for more than C$1 trillion in mortgages. In other words, there is no practical difference to the role played by the once nominally private GSE’s and credit insurers in the US and the Canadian version of them: in both instances these institutions have enabled vast growth in ever more risky lending, while ultimately tax payers are picking up the tab when things go wrong – as they invariably must.”

That is to say, the difference between a soft landing and a meltdown could boil down to the financial integrity of the CMHC. A report from the agency released yesterday stresses its health and ability to stay solvent in the event of a downturn, and the conventional wisdom is that the Canadian real estate market will go through a rough patch and nothing more.  But anybody who was paying attention during the American housing crisis can remember similar assurances, which turned out to be just plain wrong.

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