Thursday, June 28, 2012

Mortgage Rules Changing and Timing

News abounds of the impending changes to maximum amortization lengths for government-underwritten mortgage insurance. This announcement follows the general form of previous announcements affecting CMHC, "strengthening" the housing market, and comments by Minister of Finance Jim Flaherty on concerns particularly about overbuilding in Toronto.

What's different this time is the implementation period is, in business terms, immediate: only 13 days to complete a transaction and fill out an application for mortgage insurance under the old guidelines. This was in an effort to avoid the surge in activity witnessed last year when the rules were changed with 60 day notice. To recap the changes to all mortgages that are eligible for government-underwritten mortgage insurance are as follows:

  • Maximum amortization falls from 30 years to 25 years
  • Lower the maximum amount Canadians can borrow when refinancing to 80 per cent from 85 per cent of the value of their homes
  • Fix the maximum gross debt service ratio at 39 per cent and the maximum total debt service ratio at 44 per cent
  • Limit the availability of government-backed insured mortgages to homes with a purchase price of less than $1 million.
Certainly none of these moves can be considered stimulative for housing, and in total impact it's around 10% less total debt that can be withdrawn based on the 30-25 year move, even more for top-prime borrowers, and completely snuffed for loans above $1MM, though it's unclear how many loans are insured above this level. There has been some good commentary on the moves and the implications in the short term.

What I wanted to concentrate on are two things, first the implications at the high end of the market in the event of a significant bout of weakness, (houses in higher-end areas of Vancouver are seeing months of inventory well above 10, which all but guarantees subsequent price drops) second the timing of the announcement.

1) If prices do become weak, many borrowers will find their equity has been compromised and banks, due to upcoming guideline changes to how it must account for mortgages, will be loath to carry these loans and require mortgage insurance as a hedge. If the property is valued above $1MM that leaves fewer options for the borrower and rates will increase, in some cases significantly. It's hard to tell by how much, but if current weakness extends through the remainder of the year -- which is no sure thing -- the high end of the market will suffer from another solid blow to the midsection.

2) The timing of this announcement caught me off-guard. It was issued subsequent to the G20 meeting in Mexico and at a time where rumours of a renewed bout of stimuli and recapitalizations occurring in the Eurozone, the United States, and China. My guess is that discussions regarding coordinated and large stimulus efforts were discussed at this meeting, ahead of the EU summit occurring this weekend. If a renewed bout of stimulus is put forward, this can flow, and in the past has flowed, into speculative assets, further deteriorating earnings ratios. The changes to CMHC's rules, designed to dam against further increasing household debt, by themselves could destroy a housing market in the face of slowing jobs and wage growth in the normally slower second half of the year for housing transactions. But if paired with a significant global stimulus, the effects may be muted.

(It may also be that this was the last opportunity for the Department of Finance to shoot off a policy directive before the vacation season kicks off, so the timing may be one of practicality more than any global machinations.)

The changes directed at the high-end and high-quality borrowers are interesting in the context of a potential renewed bout of global stimulus coupled with what looks like an unsustainable investment boom in other parts of the world, particularly China. Given the Bank of Canada has hinted in the past about the relatively high level of foreign investment in Canada's property markets, I wouldn't be surprised if they are attempting to both divert capital inflows and ensure another foray of borrowing by Canadian residents is impossible.

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