Canada’s Housing Imbalance Poses ‘Greatest’ Risk to Financial System, Watchdog Says

By Paul Vieira

OTTAWA–The current imbalance in Canada between solid demand for housing and the limited supply available is driving up prices and represents the “greatest” risk in the country’s financial system, Canada’s banking regulator says.

Peter Routledge, head of the Office of the Superintendent of Financial Institutions, said Tuesday that demand for housing remains strong across the country, leading to “very significant” price increases.

Recent data from the Canadian Real Estate Association indicated benchmark house prices in October rose more than 23{21df340e03e388cc75c411746d1a214f72c176b221768b7ada42b4d751988996} compared with the same period a year ago. In part, this increase is related to a lack of inventory available for buyers.

CREA estimates that as of October, there were nearly two months of housing inventory–or the amount of time it would take, given the current pace of transactions, for every active residential real-estate listing on the market to sell. CREA said the historical inventory average is roughly five months.

“The greatest prudential risk in Canada’s financial system is the supply-demand imbalance in housing,” Mr. Routledge said in a virtual speech to financial analysts in Vancouver, British Columbia. “The imbalance tends to drive price increases to ever higher levels relative to income; this in turn induces more Canadians to resort to more leverage when buying a home.”

Mr. Routledge cited recent data from the economics team at Bank of Nova Scotia, which calculated that Canada has the lowest number of housing units per 1,000 residents of any Group of Seven country.

Mr. Routledge added that the need to bring the level of housing construction aligned with demand “is an imperative for long-term financial stability.”

For the past decade and until recently, Canadian officials have targeted tougher rules on mortgage-financing to cool demand for housing and slow white-house price growth in major markets such as Toronto and Vancouver, British Columbia. Now, Canadian officials have signaled a shift in policy, eyeing billions toward building additional housing units in urban areas, tailored to middle-class households, as the best way to address housing affordability.

Earlier Tuesday, a senior Bank of Canada official said elevated household debt levels have re-emerged as a concern for the central bank, in part because of a sharp rise in housing prices.

Bank of Canada Deputy Gov. Paul Beaudry said the prevalence of highly indebted households –which are defined as those with a debt-to-income ratio above 350{21df340e03e388cc75c411746d1a214f72c176b221768b7ada42b4d751988996}–likely improved during the first year of the pandemic as many Canadians accumulated savings and paid down debt. But that trend appears to be reversing, he said, in part because of the worsening quality of Canadians’ mortgage borrowing in recent quarters.

Write to Paul Vieira at [email protected]

Minnie Arwood

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