Bank of Nova Scotia chief says fears of housing bubble exaggerated

Modest credit growth and a stable job market mean fears are overblown while housing gains in Toronto are backed by a bigger population

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 15 October, 2014, 5:09am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 15 October, 2014, 5:09am

Canadian concerns about a housing bubble are overblown in a country where credit growth is modest and the job market is stable, says Bank of Nova Scotia chief executive Brian Porter.

"Bubble is perhaps the most overused word since the global financial crisis," Porter said in Washington at the weekend, referring to Canada's housing market. "We are very comfortable in terms of our exposure. We think we have monitored it well, and we stress-test that."

Domestic mortgages worth about C$200 billion (HK$1.38 trillion) were the biggest part of the Toronto-based lender's balance sheet, Porter said, and the value of those assets could withstand even major jumps in unemployment or interest rates. Gains in housing in Toronto, a focus of concern among regulators after a surge in prices and condominium construction, were backed by population growth, he said.

"Canadian consumers have generally a very conservative attitude towards debt, and their household balance sheet including other assets is in very good shape," Porter said.

Canada's ratio of household debt to disposable income rose to 163.6 per cent between April and June, close to the record 164.1 per cent in the third quarter of last year, Statistics Canada said. last month. The drop in the average five-year fixed mortgage rate to the lowest in decades at 4.8 per cent this year has fuelled unexpected gains in home prices and resales, which reached the highest in more than four years in August.

Consumer credit growth was close to the rate of inflation, between 2 per cent and 2.5 per cent, Porter said. Last week, Canada reported the jobless rate fell to the lowest in almost six years last month on the largest monthly increase in employment since May last year.

The biggest risk for Canada was losing out on global demand for its commodities by failing to build a network of export pipelines, Porter said.

"The Canadian economy has to graduate from what has been a housing-development-led recovery coming out of the global financial crisis, and there has to be spending in the real economy," he said.

He cited delays in building liquefied natural gas terminals on the west coast.

"Canada basically produces what the world wants, whether it's grains, potash, uranium, oil and gas," Porter said. "But the consumers of these have choices, whether it's the Japanese, the Koreans, the Chinese, so Canadians shouldn't be too complacent here."

Scotiabank, Canada's third-biggest lender by assets, will keep its focus on Latin American markets such as Chile, Columbia, Mexico and Peru. Governments were seeking to finance new infrastructure projects and grow the middle class, Porter said.

"As the middle class expands, they consume and we are there for them to provide the car loan, the mortgage, the wealth management products," he said. Infrastructure projects in the region "will continue to be a big favourable business for us".

Faster growth in the United States would also boost economies across the hemisphere, Porter said, meaning things might turn out better than the "new mediocre" scenario laid out this week by the International Monetary Fund.

"Things aren't quite as bleak as the headlines would make them out," he said.

Scotiabank had money for new acquisitions even after it made about 20 transactions during the global financial crisis if the price was right, Porter said.

"We are disciplined, we aren't in a hurry to do anything, so we will see how things shake out," he said. "We are investing in our business. We are growing our business organically, too, and we think that's very important."