Canada's housing market set for soft landing after recent gains: economist

Economist predicts cooldown after years of strong gains and recent moves to curb demand

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 23 October, 2013, 4:49am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 23 October, 2013, 4:49am

Canada's housing market will have a "soft landing" after years of strong gains and recent steps by policy makers to curb demand, according to a senior economist.

"Things don't look too out of whack" for housing and consumer finances, Michael Gregory of BMO Capital Markets told investors during a panel discussion at the Bloomberg Focus Day Symposium in Toronto.

"Housing is going to cool. A soft landing still seems to be unfolding," he said.

Finance Minister Jim Flaherty has tightened lending rules and sought greater control over the country's housing agency on concerns about overbuilding of flats in Toronto and Vancouver.

Flaherty has said that his moves should be enough to prevent a bubble, but existing-home sales have risen for seven straight months and housing starts increased 5.3 per cent in September, led by flats.

Risks remain in the housing market, according to others on the panel including Eric Lascelles, chief economist at RBC Global Asset Management.

"There is clearly quite an excess on the condo side across the country but with obvious relevance to Toronto" for new construction, he said. "It points to particular weakness in that area, but not of a systemic variety."

Canada's ratio of debt to disposable income reached a record 163.4 per cent in the second quarter. Recent gains in the housing market have been driven by consumers "spooked" by signs mortgage rates would rise and diminish the potential for future growth, said Derek Holt, vice-president of economics at Bank of Nova Scotia.

"We are still at very lofty premiums, record-high 70 per cent home ownership rate, record- high debt-to-income ratio, record-high renovation spending," Holt said. "I don't think we will go down the US path because our mortgage market is fundamentally different," he said.

"It's a moderating period, and it's part of that not-terrible-but-Canada underperformance story compared to the US."

Holt said the Bank of Canada, which has kept its policy interest rate at 1 per cent since September 2010 to boost demand, may stay on hold until at least late in 2015.

Central bank governor Stephen Poloz is counting on a shift in demand to business investment and exports from debt-fuelled consumer spending.

Poloz said last month in Vancouver: "I don't perceive that there is a bubble in Canada's housing market."

The central bank may raise the key interest rate to 1.5 per cent by the end of next year because of momentum in the economy and concerns about housing, said Derek Burleton, deputy chief economist at Toronto-Dominion Bank.

"Who would have thought we would be in this low-interest-rate environment for so long?" Burleton said.