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Canada Must Deflate Burgeoning Housing Bubble

Household debt has risen to 167% of disposable income.Household debt has risen to 167% of disposable income.

Canada’s housing market offers a case study in a contentious economic issue: If a central bank sees a bubble forming, should it act to deflate it? In this instance, the answer should be a resounding yes.

A combination of foreign money, local speculation and abundant credit has driven Canadian house prices to levels that even government officials recognize cannot be sustained. In the Toronto area, for example, they were up 32% from a year earlier in April. David Rosenberg, an economist at Canadian investment firm Gluskin Sheff, notes that it would take a decline of more than 40% to restore the historical relationship between prices and household income, Bloomberg opined.

Granted, the bubble bears little resemblance to the US subprime boom that triggered the global financial crisis. Although one specialized lender, Home Capital Group, has had issues with fraudulent mortgage applications, regulation has largely kept out high-risk products. Homeowners haven’t been withdrawing a lot of equity, and can’t legally walk away from their debts like many Americans can. Banks aren’t sitting on the kinds of structured products that destroyed balance sheets in the US. Nearly all mortgage securities and a large portion of loans are guaranteed by the government.

That said, the situation presents clear risks. As buyers stretch to afford homes, household debt has risen to 167% of disposable income—the highest among the Group of Seven industrialized nations. This is a serious vulnerability, and a big part of the rationale behind Canadian banks’ recent ratings downgrade. The more indebted people are, the more sensitive their spending becomes to changes in prices and interest rates, potentially allowing an otherwise small shock to result in a deep recession.

Administrative efforts to curb lending and tax foreign buyers have helped but haven’t solved the problem. That’s largely because extremely low interest rates are still giving people a big incentive to borrow. The Bank of Canada has held its target rate at 1% or lower since 2009, and at 0.5% since 2015, when it eased to counteract the effect of falling oil prices. That’s a very stimulative stance in a country where the neutral rate is estimated to be about 3% or higher. One can’t help but see a parallel with the low US rates and the housing bubble of the early 2000s.

The oil shock is over and unemployment is at its lowest level in more than eight years: The economic rationale for keeping rates so low has faded. Inflation remains subdued, but these are exactly the circumstances in which asset prices should guide the central bank.

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