The Canadian housing market is becoming highly segmented and multi-dimensional which is making traditional measures, like average prices, increasingly irrelevant in gauging the health and state of the sector, finds a new report from CIBC World Markets Inc.
“Glancing at popular metrics such as the price-to-income ratio or the price-to-rent ratio, it is tempting to conclude that the housing market is already in clear bubble territory and a huge crash is inevitable,” writes Benjamin Tal, Deputy Chief Economist at CIBC, in his latest Consumer Watch Canada report.
“Tempting, but probably wrong. When it comes to the Canadian real estate market at this stage of the cycle, any statement based on average numbers can be hugely misleading. The truth is buried in the details—and there the picture is still not pretty, but much less alarming.”
He notes that while the average house price in Canada rose 8.6 per cent on a year-over-year basis in May, that number slows to 5.6 per cent if you take Vancouver out of the picture. Remove Vancouver and Toronto and the average price increase drops to 3.7 per cent.
By digging into the details on the high profile Vancouver market he found that the gap between average and median prices is reaching an all-time high. While the average house price climbed 25.7 per cent on a year-over-year basis to more than $800,000 in May, he found that by removing properties that sold for more than a $1 million there was a much more moderate price appreciation in the market. It also reduced the average sale price by $220,000 to just over $590,000.
“What makes Vancouver abnormal is the high end of its property market,” says Mr. Tal. “And in this context many, including Bank of Canada Governor Mark Carney, point the finger at foreign—mainly Asian wealth—as the main driver here.”
Data on the extent of the role that Asian investors have played in Vancouver housing prices is quite limited. Mr. Tal’s analysis of data obtained from Landcor Data Corporation suggests that only 10 per cent of the nearly 4,500 transactions involving foreign money over the past five years were above the $1 million mark, with an average purchasing price of just under $600,000.
According to the information provided by Landcor, foreign money accounted for only 2.6 per cent of all sales during the same period. However, Mr. Tal believes that could be a serious underestimate, as it is based on where property tax assessments are mailed, and would exclude offshore buying on behalf of children or other local proxies.
“There are many reasons to believe that a significant portion of what is perceived to be buying by offshore investors is, in fact, driven by Chinese immigrants that are integrated into the community but still maintain strong links to mainland China, with many residing and working in China while their family establishes roots in B.C.”
“Looking beyond the average price numbers reveals a highly segmented and multi-dimensional market that is probably influenced by different forces,” says Mr. Tal. “But even a multi-dimensional market can overshoot—and the likelihood is that prices in the Canadian market and its sub-segments are higher than what can be explained by factors such as income growth, rent and household formation. Given that, the housing market will eventually correct. The only question is what will be the mechanism of that correction.”
Mr. Tal feels the price correction in Canada will be gradual as the two key triggers for a price crash – a significant and quick increase in interest rates and/or a high-risk mortgage market that is very sensitive to changes in economic factors – are not at play in Canada.
“In Canada, a sharp and brisk tightening cycle is unlikely. The market expects a gradual increase in short-term rates in the coming years. The rising number of mortgage holders that carry a variable rate mortgage will be the first to feel the pain. But if history is any guide, they will return quickly to the comfort of a five-year fixed rate the minute the Bank of Canada starts hiking.”
He also believes that the country is in relatively good shape when assessing the two sub-segments of the mortgage market that traditionally account for most defaults: mortgage holders that carry a debt-service ratio of more than 40 per cent and those with less than 20 per cent equity in their house.
Just over six per cent of households have a debt service ratio of more than 40 per cent—a number that has risen by a full percentage point since 2008.
“However, this ratio is still well below the ratio seen in 2003, when the effective interest rate on debt was more than a full percentage point higher, and no correction in house prices ensued,” adds Mr. Tal.
“All other things being equal, even a 300-basis-points rate hike by the Bank of Canada would take this ratio to only just over eight per cent. Not surprisingly, Vancouver has the highest ratio of households with high debt-service ratio, followed by Toronto.”
A little more than 17 per cent of the Canadian residential real estate pool is in properties with less than a 20 per cent equity position, a number that has been rising over the past few years. More than 80 per cent of households with less than a 20 per cent equity position are first time buyers.
“Digging deeper and looking at the households with both low equity positions and high debt-service ratios, we found that this fragile segment of the market accounts for only 4.6 per cent of total mortgages—a number that has been on an upward trend over the past few years,” says Mr. Tal. “Shock the system with a 300-basis-points rate hike and that number would rise to a still-tempered 6.5 per cent. Historically, even in that group, the default rate has been well below one per cent. Thus, short of a huge macro shock, there does not appear to be the risk of large scale forced selling that would typically be the trigger for a precipitous plunge in the national average house price.
“As a result, while house prices are likely to adjust as interest rates eventually climb, the national pace of any correction is likely to be gradual. That could still entail a period in which housing underperforms other assets as an investment class, until rising incomes and a tame price trajectory bring the market back to equilibrium.”
The complete CIBC World Markets report is available at: http://research.cibcwm.com/economic_public/download/cw-20110707.pdf.
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