OTTAWA – Bank of Canada governor Mark Carney said Tuesday he is encouraged by new developments on the household debt front, noting that recent trends suggest efforts to depress lending is working.
Testifying before the Commons finance committee, Carney told MPs that both debt accumulation and the number of new variable mortgages is declining sharply.
Household debt has kept growing in Canada despite the weak economy mostly because, as Carney admits, the Bank of Canada has kept interest rates so low they are almost impossible for Canadians to resist.
But in recent months, debt accumulation has slowed to four per cent annual growth, from 10 per cent, and the percentage of new mortgages on short-term variable rates has fallen to the low teens, from as high as 30 per cent.
Carney said he still regards household debt — which currently is at a near-record 151 per cent of disposable income — as the number one domestic risk to the Canadian economy, but he suggested the recent data was encouraging.
“I will note that the proportion of variable debt of new mortgages has gone down quite substantially and is running in the low teens,” he said.
“New debt is locking in, the question is whether existing debt is doing the same.”
Locking in to fixed-term mortgages leaves household less vulnerable to interest rate increases.
As he did last week, Carney repeated his hint that interest rates would indeed increase given the improving global economic outlook and firmer growth in Canada, but gave no further guidance as to when that might occur.
The bank has kept it’s policy rate at one per cent since September 2010, and Canadians have taken advantage of it to make big purchases, buy homes and take out loans using their homes as collateral. That has contributed to the price of homes rising, perhaps more than they should, he said.
On average, Canadian homes are currently valued at 4 3/4 times household income, compared to the historic average of 3 1/2 times income.
Carney specifically singled out condominiums in Toronto and other large metropolitan areas as vulnerable to a price correction.
“The level of housing activity, particularly the level of condo activity in some metropolitan areas, is quite high. In fact in Toronto reaching levels last seen in the 1980s … and we have some concerns over those developments,” he said.
“There are cases where valuations are firm, and there is probably more downside risk than upside risk in the future evolution of prices.”
In recent past remarks, the governor has said his major concern is that some Canadian households will face financial burdens once interest rates rise, and that higher debt payments will squeeze household spending from other areas of the economy, such as consumer purchases.
“The interest rate environment is exceptional and exceptions come to an end,” he said.
The recent cooling in lending follows new restrictions put in place by the Superintendent of Financial Institutions and other policy measures, including tighter mortgage rules.
Most of the testimony to MPs went over ground covered in the bank’s monetary policy review report last week forecasting moderate growth of 2.4 per cent in Canada for 2012 and 2013.
Carney said Canada’s economic fundamentals are mostly sound, but that there was still room for improvement, particularly in how businesses respond to new emerging economies.
As he has in the past, he cautioned Canada’s over-dependence on slow-growth markets such as the U.S. is limiting growth prospects, and that most of the opportunities lie with Asia and South America.
“There are tremendous opportunities for this economy … to capture more of the value added from our resource sector,” he said.
He pointed out Canada could become a leader in energy efficiency, for example.
“We can make our economy much more productive in its use of resources, in its energy efficiency, and that is a tremendous gain for this economy from a productivity perspective but also it’s a tremendous export (opportunity).”
Carney has scheduled a busy week of public events to explain the bank’s latest economic outlook. He will testify before the Senate banking committee on Wednesday, and give a power-point presentation to the Ottawa city council on Friday.