Newspaper editorials have been overflowing lately with speculation on how rising rates may lead to a surge in mortgage defaults. In response to this issue, CIBC Economist Benjamin Tal released a report that took a closer look at the facts and determined history doesn’t support this premise. Below is a summary of Tal’s report.
House Prices – Some Overshooting
Over the past two years, the degree of volatility observed in the Canadian housing market has been unprecedented. Within this short timeframe, house prices fell by almost 13%, only to rebound by an impressive 21%.
Meanwhile, resale activity is now rising by close to 67% on a year-over-year basis after falling by close to 40% in 2008. Housing starts are presently 33% higher than in April 2009 despite dropping by more than 50% earlier in the recession.
In fact, no other segment of the economy has rebounded as fast as the housing market, making it one of the real surprises of this recession. This rapid uptick in housing activity, in the face of recessionary conditions elsewhere in the economy, raises concerns about its sustainability, and is causing some to wonder whether house prices are, in fact, rising too quickly given current economic fundamentals.
Tal estimates that the Canadian housing market as a whole is indeed beginning to overshoot its “fair value”. At just under $350,000, the current average price of a home is estimated to be roughly 7% over what would be consistent with current housing market fundamentals such as interest rates, income growth, rents and demographics.
But this modest overshooting is far from uniform across the country. Those figures are skewed to western Canada, which has seen the most dramatic swings in house prices over the past 24 months. That market now appears to be overvalued by roughly 10-15%, suggesting that the imbalance in the rest of the country is much more modest.
Note, however, that overvaluation does not necessarily mean a bubble or a dramatic price correction. Given that the current overvaluation is occurring in a context of historically low interest rates, what we are most likely witnessing is a temporary period of exuberance that is “borrowing” activity from the future, as households take advantage of lower rates and accelerate their borrowing and home purchasing activities.
To the extent that current activity is simply a redistribution of sales from the future to the present, the housing market of tomorrow may be in store for a more muted level of activity. Housing starts will also catch up with the sudden spurt in demand, with the increase in supply helping to moderate price trends. Rather than plunging, house prices are more likely to stagnate in coming years (or fall modestly in the most overheated markets) as fundamentals catch up with a market that has gotten ahead of itself.
What Worries the Bank of Canada?
Rather than house prices, it is the accelerated pace of borrowing at very low rates that is beginning to raise some concerns at the Bank of Canada. For the first time in the post-war era, real household credit continued to expand through a recession. In fact, mortgage credit is now rising at a year-over-year rate of more than 7%.
This strong performance is a clear reflection of an extremely effective monetary policy in Canada. With Canadian consumer confidence only 10 points below its pre-recession level (versus a 50% decline in the US), Canada is benefiting not only from properly functioning credit channels, but also from a household sector that is willing and able to take on new credit.
Remember that low rates only work as an economic stimulus if Canadians take advantage of them. The wave of borrowing does, however, have consequences in terms of consumer debt levels. The household debt-to-income ratio is now at a new all-time high of more than 140%.
Despite a record low 4.4% effective mortgage rate, overall mortgage interest payments as a share of after-tax income are now at levels that in the past were consistent with a 6% effective mortgage rate. Since rates will no doubt at some point return to those higher levels, the Bank of Canada is worried that Canadians are making themselves increasingly more vulnerable in terms of their ability to continue to service these new, higher debt loads.
How Big is the Problem?
The relevant question, however, is just how serious a problem it is becoming, and here we have to dig a bit deeper to get the answers. Aside from an unlikely scenario of a 1970s-type stagflation, any future increase in interest rates will be in response to an improving economy. As such, any analysis of the potential impact of higher rates on the household sector in general, and the housing market in particular, should be done with tomorrow’s healthier economy in mind.
After all, the reality is that, in the past, interest rates have played only a minor role in driving mortgage default rates. Historically, it’s clear that mortgage arrear rates are highly correlated with the unemployment rate, with little or no correlation with changes in interest rates. The same goes for the economy in general. Over the past three decades, personal bankruptcies have risen twice as fast in an environment of falling interest rates than in an environment of rising rates.
And the logic here is obvious – interest rates rise when the economy recovers, and the benefits to employment and incomes of an improving economy easily offset the sting of higher interest rates on debt service costs.