Contruction work progresses in Toronto. With debt already at record levels, homebuyers may face problems down the road. Photo: Bloomberg

Bank of Canada's low-rate pledge revives fears of housing bubble

A surprise move by Canada's central bank is expected to boost the housing market but in the long run homeowners may pay the price

The Bank of Canada's surprising signal that it will not raise interest rates any time soon will lift the housing market and give indebted households breathing room, but it leaves many fearing that there will be a hard reckoning.

Canada sidestepped the worst of the financial crisis because it avoided the real estate excesses of the United States, and a post-recession housing boom helped it recover more quickly than its Group of Seven peers.

But the housing market began to cool last year after the country's Conservative government, worried about a potential property bubble, tightened mortgage rules. The news that rates will not be rising has made those bubble fears return.

"This is a double-edged sword," said Laurie Campbell, chief executive at Credit Canada, a credit counselling agency that is funded by banks and other lenders. "It's going to keep more home buyers in the market, but … I worry. Interest rates are going to be stable and [homebuyers] can get a good rate, but are they getting into the market only because of that? Debt is at record levels, and we know consumers are biting off more than they can chew financially, so does this lead to more problems down the road?"

The Bank of Canada has underpinned the housing market by holding its key policy rate at a near-record low of 1 per cent since 2010. But early last year, worried by soaring household debt levels, it began warning its next move would be a rate hike and that Canadians should plan accordingly.

But even as it continued to acknowledge the problem of soaring debt levels in its latest report, it dropped that language, putting more emphasis on the risks of weak inflation and an economy still operating well below potential. The bank's omission of the rate warning left players in the housing market anticipating a renewed surge of strength.

"What is going to happen is rates are going to be lower for longer, and that means it is more appealing for buyers to get into the market," said Kim Gibbons, a mortgage broker in Toronto.

Already, brokers are seeing borrowers shifting back to variable rate mortgages as homebuyers bet rates will stay at very low levels for a few more years. When rates had looked like they were on the rise, fixed-rate mortgages seemed the safer bet, locking in a low rate before costs rise.

A five-year variable rate mortgage at 2.5 per cent allows a borrower to lower the early cost of a loan, compared with a five-year fixed rate at 3.5 or 4 per cent. Effectively, that allows them to borrow more and buy a more expensive house.

A Reuters poll showed primary bond dealers, who work directly with the central bank, now expect interest rates to stay on hold until the second quarter of 2015.

"With the BOC keeping rates low for a long period of time, I would suspect that we'll see a significant trend away from longer-term fixed into shorter-term variable rates," said Toronto broker Calum Ross.

"What we know in the housing sector is people don't buy prices, they buy payments. So if the payment shock isn't there … they'll buy a payment today not having realistic expectations about what the long-term budget implications are."

The long-term implications of Canada's huge household debt burden is part of what had driven Bank of Canada policymakers, along with officials at the Finance Department, to repeatedly warn Canadians that their debt burden will become harder to bear when interest rates rise eventually.

Canada's debt-to-income ratio reached a historical high of 163.4 per cent in the second quarter, meaning Canadians owed C$1.63 (HK$12.10) for every C$1 they were bringing home. Low interest rates were partly to blame as Canadians reached for ever-larger mortgages in a booming market for residential real estate.

The federal government has tightened mortgage lending rules four times in the past five years in a bid to cool the market and prevent home buyers from taking on too much debt. And the Bank of Canada did its bit by using the threat of rising interest rates to remind consumers that cheap money would not last.

No longer. Having dropped the threat of raising interest rates, analysts believe the Bank of Canada has pushed the consequences of higher levels of borrowing well into the future.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Promise of low rates revives bubble fears