Wednesday, March 23, 2016
Canada’s housing market is sizzling hot and the Bank of Canada has a monetary policy dilemma: increase interest rates to cool the housing market would hurt borrowers and the economy; keep interest rates low adds fuel to the borrowing that led to the rise in housing prices and in household debt. What to do?
The latest national data on house prices in February suggest a year-on-year increase of 9 percent. House prices in Vancouver and Toronto—that contribute about a third of Canada’s GDP—have led the increase.
Canada’s housing boom has been accompanied by a steady rise in the nation’s household debt to 165 percent of disposable income by the end of 2015 (see chart). One way to cool the housing sector is to increase interest rates, but that would hurt the slowing economy, which has been hit hard by the decline in oil prices. Hence, the dilemma.
Low mortgage rates are an important factor feeding the housing market boom. This has helped keep interest payments low even as the size of the average mortgage has risen. As the figure shows, the share of interest payments in households’ disposable income has declined from 9 percent in 2008 to 6 percent in 2015, while the average size of mortgages has increased by some 40 percent over the same period. This means more households are able to afford more expensive homes, which, in turn, prompts households to borrow more money and get further into debt, while house prices continue to be pushed upward. This process should continue as long as employment is robust and interest rates remain low.
The Bank of Canada is rightly concerned about the rise in household debt, which makes the economy more vulnerable to unanticipated shocks and financial strains more probable. A mini version of this is playing out in Alberta, which has the third highest level of household debt among the provinces—after British Colombia and Ontario—and was hit by a large terms of trade shock from the oil price decline. The Alberta economy is expected to have contracted by almost 2 percent last year amid massive layoffs by the oil industry and house prices fell by 4 percent since their peak in late 2014.
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