Monday, May 31, 2010

Canada won't fall victim to foreclosure wave:

John Shmuel, Financial Post

Canada's housing market is expected to cool off this year and next, but isn't at risk of falling victim to a U.S.-style foreclosure crisis anytime soon, according to a new report by debt-rating firm DBRS Ltd.

DBRS said in the report that Canada will continue to fare well in comparison to its neighbour to the south when the Canadian housing market corrects itself and interest rates are tightened. That is because lending practices here are much more sound than in the U.S.

"The likelihood of us having the kind of situation they had in the U.S. is extremely low," said Jerry Marriott, managing director of structured finance at DBRS . "It's a combination of the lending practices prior to the peak in 2007 - they were more restrained, so there were better underwriting practices in Canada. We also think there are a number of factors in the Canadian market which have lent themselves to more prudent lending."

Those factors includes less aggressive lenders in the market, as well as systems designed to keep people paying their mortgages.

Mr. Marriott said that a cooling effect is gradually taking hold in the housing market as credit availability begins to tighten, and the HST factors into home buying decisions in Ontario and British Columbia.

That means there's a greater likelihood this year that there will be a correction in housing prices rather than a continued increase. Mr. Marriott said the DBRS expects the market to cool throughout the year and continue to cool into 2011. That echoes analysts expectations, who also expect prices to drop as well. A recent report by TD Bank predicts prices will fall by 2.7% in 2011.

"If you add up the factors you would look at as to whether there's going to be further price increases or the potential for a correction, we don't see there's a lot of factors supporting further price increases," Mr. Marriott said. "But there are a number of factors that show there might be some moderation in housing prices."

That may bode well for potential buyers after a report by CIBC this week said that on average, Canadian home prices are currently 14% over their "fair" value - that represents about 1.5 million homes, or 17% of all dwellings.

The report also highlights that Canadian households continue to have a particularly high level of debt, something that the DBRS notes is part of an ongoing trend. But it tempers that by adding that household debt is not as worrying as some analysts have suggested.

"We think the measurement of household leverage is subject to a fair amount of interpretation," said Mr. Marriott.

For instance, the debt-to-disposable income shows Canadians are generally more indebted than Americans - however, the report outlines that this doesn't reflect certain differences between the two countries that affect income, such as the fact that the U.S. has lower taxes but that Americans pay more money toward their health-care bills.

"At the end of 2009, Canadian households remained financially less leveraged by 10% to 45% compared with U.S. households," the report said. Overall, after adjustments, Canada had a household liabilities-to-total gross income ratio of 116.8% at the end of 2009, while the United States's ratio was 161.5%.

But Canadian household debt is growing faster. Household liabilities increased by 29.5% in Canada between 2007 and 2009. In the use, household debt grew just 5.3% during the same period.

Overall, mortgage lending in Canada reached $958.8 billion at the end of 2009. That's more than double the $414.1 billion ten years ago. When including home equity lines of credit, outstanding mortgage-related credit was more than $1 trillion.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Do you need $1 million for a comfy retirement?

by Diana Cawfield,
Wednesday, May 19, 2010

When it comes to retirement, there is no shortage of opinions on the need for a hefty $1 million to carry you through your golden years. The demographic trend of living longer and more actively also means extending our financial lives, so suggestions of needing plumper nest eggs are common. Outliving our money is a big concern for many.

While a six-digit portfolio may be the target to meet the lifestyle choices of some people, there are more modest and more achievable financial targets for many others. If you are in the lifestyle camp that requires close to $1 million to retire, and you're comfortable with that, both financially and personally, this article is not for you.

But if you are among the many other investors who will retire with far less than a million dollars, read on to find out how to make your funds last a lifetime.

Retirement less expensive than you think
According to Malcolm Hamilton, a consulting actuary with Mercer, in Toronto, we don't read about the comfortable retiree a lot because it doesn't fit the stereotype. "The stereotype," he says, "is the extravagant lady spending, the impoverished senior or the poor boomer in the sandwich generation having to help the poor senior."

Yet, people who are frugal - not miserly, notes Hamilton - and don't like wasting money often find that they don't spend anywhere near as much as they have saved.

It's all based on what you're used to. According to Hamilton, many people don't increase their spending once they retire because they're already doing what they like and it doesn't cost them very much. "It becomes obvious when they're 10 to 15 years into retirement that they're just getting richer and richer, not poorer and poorer," he says.

Hamilton points out that retirement offers a host of enjoyable, low-cost activities that include local community centres, subsidized courses and discounts on clubs and recreation. Then there's a wide choice of free or affordable activities like walks in the park, playing cards with friends, or reading and watching television for armchair adventures.

The rule of $20
Other positive factors bode well for retiring with more modest means. "Canadians tend to be very conservative about their approach to finances anyway, and our banking system has certainly helped that and it's given retirees right now a greater piece of mind," says Patricia Lovett-Reid, senior vice-president at TD Waterhouse Canada.

In fact, according to her research, close to 70 per cent of Canadian retirees already say their retirement is exactly, or mostly, what they expected. "It's the preretirees who worry about their retirement, because they're not sure how much they're going to need. So when they hear that you need a million dollars, it's overwhelming."

Lovett-Reid credits Russell Investments Canada for the helpful retirement Rule of $20. Essentially, for every dollar of annual income that you expect to need during your retirement, you need to have saved $20 by the time you retire, without inflation indexing.

For example, a couple heading into retirement with $400,000 of registered savings can expect it to generate $20,000 a year in retirement income. "Now, you combine that with an estimated $25,000 of Canada Pension Plan, or CPP, and Old Age Security, or OAS, and this couple is looking at a yearly retirement income of approximately $45,000," says Lovett-Reid.

For illustrative purposes, Lovett-Reid says research from Statistics Canada indicates that the median household income for a married couple is $63,000 gross. Therefore, if you want to maintain, say, 70 per cent of that income, then a couple at age 65 would need just shy of $45,000 a year in retirement, pretax.

For individuals who fall short of a $400,000 portfolio - especially those with no company pension - you're going to require $20,000 of income from your own savings a year to maintain close to that $45,000 in annual income.

"So you're going to have to look at the co-mingling of all your income sources - registered retirement savings, tax-free savings accounts and nonregistered accounts," says Lovett-Reid.

Three job descriptions in retirement
According to Keith Pangretitsch, director of national sales at Russell Investments Canada, to simplify the process of calculating income needs, "we always say every dollar a client has should have a job description."

To that end, he earmarks three main job descriptions for retirement funds. The first is to cover essentials such as food, shelter, transportation expenses, taxes and any other expenses beyond your control.

The second job description, lifestyle, offers flexibility because it is a discretionary expense. You can choose how to use your money when it comes to entertainment, travel, clothing and eating out, along with many other lifestyle choices.

That's not to say that controlling discretionary expenses is an easy task. "I'll put out an economics terms from my university days: We're all utility-maximizing individuals. We all want to do more than less," says Pangretitsch. So, you need to choose investments that will produce the amount of money you need.

While individuals vary greatly in risk tolerance and financial circumstances, a portfolio that offers a balance between risk and return is often necessary to generate growth of capital in retirement. "What we recommend is 60 per cent equity and 40 per cent fixed income to give you the growth that you need and to reduce the risk from equities," says Pangretitsch.

The third job description is planning. "Most people, quite frankly, start planning too late," says Pangretitsch. "I think the regulatory environment is good for folks to retire well, but we also need that added piece of financial planning to ensure that we're on track. Retirement is far too complicated, with tax issues and reduced income issues, not to take it seriously."

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

New rules cuff some mortgages to banks

Garry Marr, Financial Post
A headlock would be the wrestling term to describe the hold Canadian banks will have on some consumers because of new, more strict mortgage rules.

We are already seeing the impact of the changes that came into effect on April 19, but were put in place well in advance by Canadian financial institutions. Consumers are increasingly selecting fixed-rate mortgages of five years or more because it's easier to qualify for them.

On mortgages for terms of four years or less, including variable-rate mortgages, consumers must be able to pay based on the five-year fixed posted rate, which is now 6.1%. Go longer and you can use the rate on your contract, as low as 4.6%. No more than 32% of your gross income can cover principal and interest, property taxes and heat.

Peter Vukanovich, president of Genworth Financial Canada, the largest private provider of mortgage-default insurance, says only 5% of new high-ratio mortgages are going variable versus 15% just six months ago.

But there is another wrinkle to the new rules: Anybody shopping around for a better rate has to requalify based on their current credit situation. Stay with the same bank and there's no check.

"It's definitely a headlock and not a loophole because a loophole you can get out of," says Vince Gaetano, a mortgage broker with Monster Mortgage.

There is a large percentage of Canadians who get a renewal notice from their bank and just sign on the dotted line. The Canadian Association of Accredited Mortgage Professional has found only 22% of Canadians switch banks at renewal time. A significant portion of the remaining 78% are sheep being led around by their financial institutions.

Those looking for some choice may find what was good enough to get into the market a month ago may not meet the test today.

Consider that as recently as two years ago, consumers were able to buy a house with no money down and a 40-year amortization schedule. If that consumer was making regular monthly payments, they would have paid down only 4.7% of their principal after five years. Today, that customer would still be high ratio and subject to requalifying if they switched banks.

"It's not all of them, but a majority of first-time buyers with just 5% down or less won't be able to qualify if they go to another bank," Mr. Gaetano says. Many of those buyers were qualifying based on the three-year rate - about 200 basis points lower than the current qualification rate.

If house prices went down, something many in the real estate community have suggested could happen, that would be an even bigger blow for consumers. It would mean an even larger percentage of homeowners would still be considered high ratio upon renewal because they wouldn't meet the test of having 20% equity in their home.

Marcel Beaudry, vice-president of ING Direct, says there is no question the new rules will have an impact on consumers looking to switch banks, but noted anyone who had a 40-year amortization and changed institutions also had to requalify and there hasn't been a huge impact.

"There will be a segment of the population tied down by the new rules to their bank," Mr. Beaudry says.

That's a position nobody should be in.

Friday, May 21, 2010

But recovery has legs; Bank lending at solid clip in Canada, growth in U.S. credit

Paul Vieira, Financial Post

OTTAWA - Europe is a mess and markets are not thrilled about what they see or hear from the continent's policy-makers, judging by the global sell-off in stocks and commodities.

Still, there is reason to believe the global recovery has legs, even if it moves at a slower pace.

For starters, European uncertainty may slow attempts by Beijing to tighten Chinese credit conditions, which had traders worried about near-term emerging market demand. Bank lending continues at a good clip in Canada, and credit growth in the United States is slowly picking up. Long-term U.S. mortgage rates have moved to near-record lows, and even the sharp drop in crude oil prices, which will take a bite out of Canada's terms of trade, means more money in the pockets of that ever-important U.S. consumer.

"There's a lot of turmoil, but I don't know that I am prepared to throw in the towel and say we will have a big follow-through economic impact," says Stewart Hall, economist at HSBC Securities Canada.

Events in Europe, however, do foreshadow what's ahead -- namely, slower growth for the developed world as it deals with the massive amount of debt built up prior to the financial crisis, and piled on with zest in efforts to avert the next Great Depression.

"In the near term, the Canadian economy will be in healthy shape," says Avery Shenfeld, chief economist at CIBC World Markets. "But we are going to see the story of fiscal tightening hit much more important economic partners for Canada -- like the U.S. and Britain next year -- and that may slow growth more than we would like."

Make no mistake, Europe is a big economic deal. The eurozone, or the countries that use the euro, represents 16% of global gross domestic product.

But even before Europe got itself into trouble -- mostly over the handling of a potential Greek default -- the Bank of Canada had pencilled in weak growth for the economic bloc of just 1.2% this year and 1.6% in 2011.

Further, the eurozone plus Britain accounted for 8.6% of all Canadian exports shipped in the past 12 months.

Nevertheless, Europe's woes are beginning to ripple. The Canadian dollar took a hit and yields on Canadian bonds fell yesterday.

Market participants scaled back expectations of Bank of Canada rate increases on the belief the economy might sputter due to events across the Atlantic.

Douglas Porter, deputy chief economist at BMO Capital Markets, says the Asian crisis of the late 1990s caused "much sound and fury" in North American markets, just as Europe has this week.

But at the end of the day, the U.S. economy "kept chugging through as if nothing had happened," Mr. Porter said.

"Europe is important, but the U.S. economy is big enough to stand on its own. And the more crucial factor, going forward, is if U.S. employment keeps climbing."

One drawback from the euro troubles, though, is the rapid strength of the U.S. dollar.

Much of the anticipated U.S. economic comeback was based on its emergence as an exporting powerhouse by building on a weaker currency and the U.S. propensity to extract productivity gains.

What's got markets spooked is the possibility that Europe's fiscal malaise represents a return to yet another global recession. But credit markets continue to function and interest rates remain near record lows, Mr. Hall says.

"Are we seeing real changes in long-term demand trends? I don't think so," Mr. Hall says.

"That tends to suggest we get a commodity price recovery once markets get their heads around the fact this may not be the great economic development that the sub-prime meltdown was."


John Greenwood, Financial Post In a worrying replay of the crisis of 2008 and 2009, lending rates in Canadian credit markets continued to react to the growing turmoil over European debt, with key overnight bank lending spreads doubling since February.

"We are starting to see interbank lending rates back up again and that's an unfortunate development," said Doug Porter, deputy chief economist at BMO Capital Markets. "We are starting to see investors shun any kind of risky trade again, whether corporate bonds or equities. We are seeing risk aversion right across the board."

While Canada has only modest direct exposure to troubled European countries, like other major economies it is feeling the indirect impact of turmoil in global financial markets sparked by fears of a possible sovereign default.

The early days of the crisis that climaxed early last year were characterized by a steady retreat by lenders from any kind of risk, reflected in steadily rising rates that banks charged each other for short-term loans, which eventually moved so high that interbank lending was effectively halted.

Conditions in Canadian credit markets are still nowhere near where they were in March 2009 at the height of the storm but the widening of spreads in just about every sector is a worrying "echo of what happened," Mr. Porter said.

The comments come after German Chancellor Angela Merkel slapped a ban on the short-selling of certain kinds of stocks and bonds, that sparked anger among other European leaders and sent equity markets into a tailspin as investors concluded the European bailout was unravelling.

The closely watched London Interbank Offered Rate climbed to the highest level in 10 months earlier this week as international banks hoarded money and investors grew more leery of risk.

Meanwhile, a U.S. Federal Reserve governor yesterday warned that the European troubles could spark another financial crisis, with credit markets freezing up around the world all over again.

"The European sovereign-debt problems are a potentially serious setback," Daniel Tarullo said in testimony before congressional subcommittees.

But Mr. Porter said the markets have now moved beyond that and are now focused on the possibility of "a deeper global slowdown" that would result if the European issues are not contained.

As a major global economy roughly the size of the United States, Europe is a key driver of global growth and if European demand starts to fall, as is already happening, the rest of the world will feel it.

As a major global economy roughly the size of the United States, Europe is a key driver of global growth.

If European demand starts to fall, as is already happening, the rest of the world will feel it.

That includes regions such as Canada and China that have so far avoided serious recessions.

Indeed, Canada emerged largely unscathed from both the crisis and the economic downturn that followed partially because Canadian governments did a better job of handling their finances than most other countries.

But one reason for the widening of credit spreads on Canadian government debt may be that investors are starting to take a second look at the quality of that debt.

In a report titled Is Canada Really So Pristine on the Debt Front, Mark Chandler, a fixed-income strategist with RBC Dominion Securities Inc., notes that Canada is average with other major countries in terms of the size of its debt, about 83% of gross domestic product, sandwiched between Britain (78%) and the United States (93%).

As a result of being downgraded by most of the rating agencies about 15 years ago, Canada lost its appeal to many foreign investors and little Canadian debt is now held by foreign institutions, which is a good thing when credit markets are roiled.

However, Canada still faces the worry that holders of its debt may not be willing to renew, known as "roll-over risk," and once again we are about at "the middle of the pack" internationally, Mr. Chandler says in the report released yesterday.

Thursday, May 20, 2010


By Claire Sibonney Reuters The negative news has led many to question whether Bank of Canada will start raising rates from their current record lows on June 1.

Yields on overnight index swaps, which trade based on expectations for the Bank of Canada's key policy rate, have fallen in recent weeks and on Wednesday indicated just a 51 percent chance of a June 1 rate increase.

On April 20, when the bank removed its conditional pledge to keep interest rates on hold until the end of June, the market priced in more than a 90 percent likelihood.

Currencies tend to strengthen as interest rates rise as higher rates often attract capital flows.

"Even with the ongoing uncertainty, the Canadian situation warrants a small move toward more normal rates so I wouldn't unwind the forecast just yet," said Craig Wright, chief economist at Royal Bank of Canada., whose bank was the last primary dealer to join the call for a June 1 move.

"We're really just looking at a 25 basis point adjustment ... tapping of the brakes rather than slamming them on."

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Friday's inflation rate expected to open door to interest rate hikes: economists

By Julian Beltrame, The Canadian Press

OTTAWA - Canadians likely have only two weeks left to enjoy historically low interest rates.

With global markets beginning to stabilize following the recent fears over a Greek debt default, economists say the pieces are falling into place for the Bank of Canada to move off its emergency 0.25 per cent rate on June 1.

Economists — and markets — have already pencilled in a doubling of the policy rate in two weeks. But that is only a beginning say analysts who believe governor Mark Carney will keep on hiking rates through the rest of the year.

Even the TD Bank, which only a few months ago was advising Carney to wait until at least the third quarter of 2010, is now calling for an incremental hike beginning in June.

The reason, says the bank's director of forecasting Beata Caranci, is that the Canadian economic recovery is well ahead of schedule with what looks like two consecutive quarters of five per cent and beyond growth, a jobs recovery more robust than predicted with another 109,000 added in April, and inflation — the key indicator for the central bank — heading toward two per cent.

"The bank is looking a year or year-and-a-half out, and they are looking at an output gap that is not going to be there anymore, so they've got to start adjusting now to get the interest rate at what would be considered more neutral," she explained.

"And if they don't go now, it could mean we see bigger adjustments down the road," she added.

Higher rates are meant to slow down excessive borrowing and head off asset bubbles like an overheated housing market, which the central bank has already highlighted as a risk. Cheap money is also seen as destabilizing in the long term, much as happened in the United States in the early part of the decade and eventually led to the most recent crisis.

Economists caution that the anticipated hikes by the central bank should not be seen as an attempt to slow down activity, but merely as moving to a more traditional posture. With inflation at near two per cent, the current 0.25 per cent level is actually a negative interest rate, they note.

The TD Bank and many others believe Canada's policy rate will hit 1.5 per cent by year's end, more in line with inflation.

Carney gave a strong hint last month that he was preparing to move, surprising observers by dropping his year-long conditional pledge not to hike rates until at least July.

He has since added an element of doubt into expectations by noting that he considered the very act of removing the conditional commitment to have been a policy tightening measure. The rate-hiking narrative took another detour earlier this month with the recent turmoil in equity and financial markets over government debt issues in southern Europe — that added new uncertainty to the global recovery scenario.

But unless Europe again flares up in a major way, the only question remaining for Carney will likely be answered Friday with the release of April inflation data by Statistics Canada, say economists.

The consensus is that headline inflation will rise to 1.6 per cent and core underlying inflation — the index the central bank closely watches — will edge up to 1.8 per cent.

Those numbers are still below the bank's two per cent target but economists say they are worried because inflation is digging in at a time when the economy is still operating far below capacity, and at a time when the Canadian dollar is near parity.

That is not the case in the U.S., where inflation is actually heading south and could once again approach zero by year's end.

"Even with the current volatility in financial markets, the Canadian story remains intact as underlying fundamentals continue to improve alongside strong corporate and household balance sheets," write Scotiabank economists Derek Holt and Karen Cordes Woods in forecasting an interest rate hike.

Bank of Montreal economist Douglas Porter says there is still a chance Carney will wait until July 20, or even later, especially if the European crisis threatens to leak into North American credit markets, or if there's a big downward surprise in underlying inflation Friday.

Increasing rates in Canada, especially since the U.S. is likely to keep its policy rate at zero until 2011, will put added upward pressure on the Canadian dollar, which will further depress the country's manufacturing and exporting sectors.

But Caranci believes the dollar impact will be minor, because markets have already priced in several moves by Carney ahead of the U.S. And the loonie's recent dip below parity to about 96 cents US has partly removed an important impediment to act on rates for the Bank of Canada, she adds.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Mortgage Rates – Is It Time To Gird Our Loins?

by Andrew Pyle, for Yahoo! Canada Finance
Thursday, May 13, 2010

Now that Europe appears to have bought itself some time from those vicious currency and bond speculators (and what a price tag, at a cool trillion dollars), individuals are also feeling a little more relieved about their finances. And they are indeed quite eager to put May behind them. Where investors were lulled into a sense of false security during April, as equity volatility fell to the lowest level since July 2007 (as measured by the VIX index), the spike in volatility this month knocked people off their chairs. True, the high in the VIX last week of just above 40 was still only 50% of the peak seen in November 2008; however, it has served as a wake-up call that there are as many risks out there as rewards.

For now, though, let’s assume there are no further shocks to the system for the coming weeks and that volatility subsides. The focus for individuals and households should then return to their own fundamentals. What does the job and income situation look like? Are financial plans still intact? And what about that mortgage coming due next month?

Ah, the dreaded mortgage decision. Despite the signs of an impending rise in the general level of interest rates and warnings from government officials, I find that there is still a lack of conviction among Canadians as to whether they should lock in their mortgages at prevailing rates, versus holding on to a floating rate mortgage. It’s therefore a good time to review the facts and fiction out there so that you can make a better educated decision.

Regardless of the recent jump in rates, we still look to be in the middle of a downward trend in mortgage rates since 1981. You may remember that year, when five-year term rates were in excess of 22% in Canada. It came at the same time that North America fell victim to a painful double-dip recession. Of course, inflation was also sitting around 12% at the time. Many families lost their homes to be sure, but the threat posed by higher rates today is greater because of the fact that debt levels are much higher today than back then. The increased leverage in the housing sector, to say nothing of general credit among individuals, increases the sensitivity to rates – something we saw so very clearly in the US housing sector from 2003 to 2006.

Today, floating rate mortgages are still trading at various spreads to the prime rate, which itself hasn’t budged from 2.25% since April of last year. How much that spread is will depend on a host of factors, not the least of which is your credit score and perceived credit worthiness by your lender. That said, whether you chose a floating versus fixed rate mortgage doesn’t matter anymore since the new federal regulations went into effect last month. You must now meet the requirements or standards of a five-year term mortgage even if you want the adjustable rate variety. In other words, if you’re not going to budget for the possibility of short-term rates rising to where prevailing five-year rates are today, the government has done it for you.

That five-year rate has been a bit of a bouncing ball over the past year. In April 2009, the conventional five-year rate (or the posted rate) fell to a generational low of 5.25%, coinciding with the last quarter-point rate cut by the Bank of Canada. Through the summer and fall of last year, the rate got as high as 5.85%, but then eased back during the early months of this year as equity markets got a little shaky and bond yields stabilized. That all changed towards the end of the first quarter. Economies were looking a lot better, equities picked up the pace and inflation fears began to creep back in the market. There was also a definite shift in opinion as to when the Bank of Canada would start hiking rates, with the consensus focused on June 1st. Since bond yields needed to price in this new anticipation, other rates went up in sympathy, including mortgage rates as well as GICs. To give you an illustration, the five-year Government of Canada yield rose from about 2.4% in February to 3.2% in April. The five-year mortgage rate, which reached a low of 5.25% in March, shot up to 6.25% by late April. The only relief for borrowers has been a paltry 15-basis-point reduction by banks in the past week to 6.10%. Hardly a surprise when you consider the sharp drop in bond yields worldwide when it looked like contagion was going to put a recessionary grip on the world again.

But, have a look at where things are today. Despite the recent mortgage cuts, bond yields are rising again as investors move money from fixed income to stocks (not what I’m necessarily recommending). Assuming the European calm persists, economic fundamentals in North America continue to firm and China doesn’t upset the apple cart too much with its measures to rein in credit in that country, bonds will likely come under more pressure, sending yields higher. This should pave the way for five-year mortgage rates in Canada to climb to 6.5% and then potentially to 7%. Note, the high before the recession was only 7.5% - a level which could be reached this year under ideal economic conditions.

Now, some will say that it doesn’t matter where longer-term mortgage rates go, since short-term rates won’t likely climb to those levels. This has some merit to it, as the prime rate only got as high as 6.25% prior to the recession. Of course, with today’s spreads added on, the mortgage rate then for some would have been close to the 5-year rate. Whether or not short rates return to those levels depends on a number of things, including inflation, and with world governments still borrowing ridiculous amounts to fund fiscal spending, inflation cannot and should not be ruled out.

All this aside, the decision on which mortgage to chose ultimately comes down to a combination of expectations and emotion. It might seem okay to assume that the stock market won’t experience another meltdown like in 2008-09, but few of us would be willing to throw 100% of our assets into the market on that call. We need to sleep at night and therefore we apply balance to our portfolios. The same holds true for our borrowing decisions. I can come up with an economists’ tale of how interest rates will stay relatively low because of economic headwinds and the increased sensitivity to debt, but what if inflation fears overrule that view?

For those looking to put a household budget together that allows for an extended uninterrupted sleep, the five-year term option is still the best bet. There is also what I call a ‘sticker shock’ factor to keep in mind here. If rates at both ends of the spectrum climb over the next several years, those already acclimatized to a higher borrowing rate will find it less ‘shocking’ upon renewal than the individual with a floating rate mortgage that has to see a continual erosion of their monthly payment towards interest. In other words, the person with the longer and fixed-term mortgage will arrive at the principal amount that was anticipated. The adjustable rate mortgagor will not.

My final point on this has to do with opportunity cost. If the view of rising interest rates turns out to be false, and rates fall or stay flat, then this probably means the economy isn’t so hot. I would suggest in that event that there will be bigger concerns on the household budget than the extra couple of percentage points in interest. In short, this is not a time for aggressive offense, but a good shield.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Fixed or float? Combination mortgages increasing in popularity:

RBC poll
TORONTO, May 17 /CNW/ - The popularity of combination mortgages - which offer both fixed and floating rate segments - is on the rise, according to RBC's 17th Annual Homeowners Survey. In fact, 40 per cent of Canadians who are likely to purchase a home within the next two years plan to take out a combination mortgage, compared to 32 per cent in 2009.

The surging popularity of combination mortgages indicates that Canadians are trying to maximize low interest rates while at the same time retaining the security of a fixed mortgage. The poll also revealed a marked gender split with more women (46 per cent) than men (35 per cent) preferring a combination mortgage.

"Although interest rates are expected to rise, our study shows that not all Canadians intend to automatically opt for a fixed mortgage with a longer term," said Marcia Moffat, head, Home Equity Financing, RBC Royal Bank. "As consumers begin to learn about the benefits of mortgage diversification, we're seeing more homebuyers gain a better comfort level with adding floating rate mortgage options."

While combination mortgages are gaining in popularity, fixed-rate mortgages continue to be the most common choice for potential buyers and are preferred by 44 per cent of Canadians likely to buy a home within the next two years. Atlantic Canadians are most likely (54 per cent) to opt for a fixed rate, with Ontarians (41 per cent) least likely to do so.

"Many Canadians believe that a fixed-rate mortgage is the only way to have a locked-in and predictable payment, but a variable rate does not always mean variable payments," noted Moffat. "With our floating-rate mortgage, the portion of your payment that's applied to the principal changes, as interest rates change, not the actual payment itself. This means that when interest rates go up, your payment will pay off more interest; when interest rates go down, your payment will pay off more principal."

When current homeowners were asked about the impact of potential interest rate increases, 66 per cent said they were concerned, with women (70 per cent) more concerned than men (60 per cent).

"We expect the Bank of Canada to increase the overnight rate starting in June, with the pace of increases being fairly steady through the remainder of 2010 and 2011, which will continue to put upward pressure on borrowing costs," added Paul Ferley, assistant chief economist, RBC Economics.

Mortgage findings at-a-glance:

Fixed rate mortgages are preferred by:

- 44 per cent of Canadians likely to buy a home within the next two

years - down from 47 per cent in 2009

- 54 per cent of Atlantic Canadians (the highest in Canada)

Variable rate mortgages are preferred by:

- 16 per cent of Canadians likely to buy a home within the next two

years - down from 20 per cent in 2009

- 19 per cent of men compared with 12 per cent of women

Mortgage term most likely to be chosen by those opting for a fixed or

combination mortgage:

- Five-year term: 43 per cent

- More than five-year term: 29 per cent

- Three-year term: eight per cent

63 per cent: the proportion of Canadian homeowners who have mortgages

(compared to 56 per cent in 2005)

$124,131: the average amount remaining on Canadian homeowners' mortgages

(compared to $109,504 in 2005)

RBC recently introduced a RateCapper mortgage, in response to increased demand for mortgages options that provide both rate and payment protection. The interest rate on the RateCapper mortgage over the five-year term is based on the lower of Royal Bank of Canada's prime rate, which is currently at 2.25 per cent, and a set maximum rate, currently capped at 5.50 per cent. Canadians can visit the mortgage centre for access to advice about all aspects of their homeownership goals.

These are some of the findings of the RBC's 17th Annual Homeownership poll conducted by Ipsos Reid between January 8 to 13, 2010. The annual online survey tracks Canadians attitudes and behaviours around home buying and home ownership. It is based on a randomly selected representative sample of 2,047 adult Canadians that was statistically weighted by region, age and sex composition according to the 2006 Census data. The results are considered accurate to within +/-2.2 percentage points, 19 times out of 20, of what they would have been had the entire adult Canadian population been polled. The margin of error will be larger within regions and for other sub-groupings of the survey population.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Even recession didn't slow down Canadian's spending, report finds

By Julian Beltrame, The Canadian Press

OTTAWA - Neither recession, global uncertainty nor growing joblessness appears to have stayed Canadians' appetite for spending money they don't have.

A new report by the Certified General Accountants Association of Canada shows that household debt in the country kept rising through the recession and peaked in December at $1.41 trillion.

That's $41,740 on average per Canadian, or debt to income ratio of 144 per cent that is the worst among 20 advanced countries in the OECD.

"This report is another indication of Canadians' readiness to consume today and pay later," says association president Anthony Ariganello.

"The concern is do they understand the full cost of paying later?"

The Bank of Canada has also voiced similar concerns, with governor Mark Carney having repeatedly advised Canadians to ensure they will be able to meet their mortgage commitments once rates increase. Ottawa has put that cautionary principle into effect by stiffening the means test chartered banks must apply when issuing open-ended mortgages.

Most Canadians don't yet share that concern. The accountants' survey found that almost 60 per cent of Canadians whose debt had increased still felt they could manage it or take on more obligations.

But the accountants say many households could find themselves in difficulty when interest rates, as expected, begin to rise.

The report estimates that even a small two per cent increase in rates would mean that mid-income and higher income households would have to cut their outlays on non-essentials by between nine and 11 per cent.

The finding is similar to one reached by the Canadian Association of Accredited Mortgage Professionals in a survey results release Monday.

The survey showed that while Canadians appeared well positioned to absorb higher rates, there would be a significant number that would come under stress. The mortgage professionals estimated that 475,000 households would be challenged if mortgages rates rose to 5.25 per cent, and that 375,000 were already facing pressure paying their bills.

The most likely outcome for a debt squeeze is that households will stop spending on non-essentials, and that could ripple in a general slowing of economic growth.

Household spending, particularly in the housing sector, was a mainstay of the economy during the recession. But as interest rates grow, a bigger percentage of household income may need to be diverting into paying off debt, meaning less cash for other purchases, like autos, appliances, furniture and clothes.

BMO Capital Markets economist Sal Guatieri says that is the flip-side to the Bank of Canada's decision to slash rates to historic lows during the recession.

"That's why we did not experience a great recession," he noted. "That was the intention all along of the Bank of Canada, to get people borrow and spend. The problem is if that continued, Canada eventually would have a debt problem."

But that is why the central bank is preparing to reverse course and start increasing the cost of borrowing, he added.

Most analysts believe Carney will start moving on rates on June 1 with a small quarter-point hike.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Time to lock in that mortgage rate?

Andrew Allentuck, Financial Post Published: Thursday, May 06, 2010

Taking on a mortgage is a big commitment. Every buyer who uses a mortgage has the choice of floating or going with a fixed rate that often costs a couple of percentage points higher per year. Today, for example, one can get variable rates at an average rate of 2.34% while five year closed rates average 5.27%, according to Fiscal Agents Financial Services Group in Oakville, Ontario. Negotiated rates can be lower.

If rates never changed very much, there would be no contest – the floating rate deal would win. But rates do rise and fall and therein lies the borrower's dilemma.

Borrowers with kids and an aging car fear that their ability to pay interest rates twice or thrice the current floating rates are limited. "The test is liquidity and risk tolerance," says Derek Moran, a registered financial planner who heads Smarter Financial Planning Ltd. in Kelowna, B.C. "People with ample liquidity can afford to take a chance on rising mortgage rates. It follows that those who lack liquidity feel some pressure to avoid drastic interest rate increases."

The point is not merely academic, for Canada, in spite of recent mortgage rate increases, is still at a relatively low point of rates over the last four decades. "There is more room for rates to go up than down," Moran points out.

The cost of making a decision to float or go fixed varies with the rate differences.

In 2008, Moshe Milevsky, Associate Professor of Finance at the Schulich School of Business at York University, and Brandon Walker, a research associate at the Individual Finance and Insurance Decisions Centre in Toronto, published a study that measured the direct and opportunity costs of going with either choice. "Over the long run, homeowners really do pay extra for fixed rate mortgages," they concluded.

The reason is intuitive. Lenders do not want to take the chance that when they have to refinance a loan that they will be stuck paying more than they are getting.

Mismatching what they lend with the cost of what they borrow can cut their profits and even lead to insolvency. So lenders attach what amounts to an interest rate insurance fee and bundle that into the price of money they lend on fixed terms.

Milevsky and Walker confirmed this explanation. "The study showed that a positive Maturity Value of Savings [the value of investing the difference between floating and fixed mortgages in 91-day T-bills] was positive the majority of the time, so the homeowner saved by using a variable-rate mortgage."

The amount of money that the homeowner can save by taking a chance on floating rates varied in the Milevsky and Walker study, depending on the time periods in question. But the average amount was impressive: $20,630 as of 2008. Put another way, floating allowed borrowers to cut the time it would take to pay off the mortgages by a year or more, in some cases as much as five years on 15-year amortizations.

Rational calculation and personal feeling are, of course, different things. A person with a fixed income and a great deal of debt may be reluctant to put a rate casino between himself and the lender and will therefore go with certainty, even at a high price.

It is also a matter of experience. "First time buyers tend to pay close attention to the cost of the mortgage," says Laura Parsons, Areas Manager of Specialized Sales – which includes mortgages, for the BMO Financial Group in Calgary. For them, the appeal of locking in is relatively high. Their mortgages are new, the amounts they owe are higher than they would be 10 or 15 years in future when the mortgage is substantially reduced, and their incomes, often early in their adult lives, are lower than they will be in future.

"First time home buyers are net debtors and they don't want to endanger their finances," suggests Adrian Mastracci, a portfolio manager and financial planner who heads KCM Wealth Management Inc. in Vancouver.

There are other strategies that the buyer can use to provide some rate insurance without taking on what Milevsky and Walker have demonstrated as the high cost of peace of mind.

"The buyer can take a variable rate mortgage but set payments higher than the minimum required" says Parsons. "That could be at the 5 year closed rate, which would mean a faster paydown and growing asset security while still keeping the low cost of the variable rate mortgage. Faster paydown is itself cost insurance if interest rates do rise."

Banks are nothing if not inventive in helping clients cope with the fixed versus floating dilemma. For example, TD Bank offers to give 5% of the amount borrowed on a five or six year fixed rate residential mortgage to the borrower. The program, aptly dubbed the "5% CashBack Mortgage," implicitly acknowledges that fixed rate loans can be more costly than variable rate ones.

For its part, RBC has a RateCapper Mortgage that builds on the initial low cost of a variable rate mortgage but limits the cost if rates shoot up. On a five year mortgage, the borrower will never pay more than the capped rate and if the variable rate, based on the prime rate, drops below the RateCapper mortgage maximum, the interest rate charged to the borrower also drops. The plan is a compromise and spreads interest rate risk. Many other lenders allow borrowers to mix fixed and variable rates, thus accomplishing a similar goal.

Plan selection, it turns out, is gender-related. According to a BMO survey, men, 44% of the time, are more likely than women to choose a fixed rate mortgage than women, who make that choice only 28% of the time. Women, it turns out, tend to make the better choice, for as BMO's analysis shows, "fixed rates were advantageous during only two periods – through the late 1970s and in the late 1980s, in both cases ahead of a period rising interest rates, as is the case now."

So where are interest rates headed? The yield curve, a line that links interest rates for periods of time from 1 day to 30 years, implies that rates will rise, but not very much.

There is no sense that we are returning to a period of double digit rates. Moreover, there are deflationary forces at work, notes Patricia Croft, chief economist of RBC Global Asset Management in Toronto. "The present crisis in European finance and the potential fizzling out of the present recovery in North American capital markets could presage falling inflation and even disinflation – the subsidence of rising prices and interest rates," she explains..

BMO forecasts that the rising Canadian dollar will put downward pressure on consumer prices, reflecting the fact that much of what Canadians eat and use is imported. Inflation could flare up, BMO's economists say, but there is a balanced risk of declining prices. For now, the Bank of Canada is being very cautious in its interest rate management commitments. For those who are strapped for cash, personal circumstance may dictate the choice of a fixed rate. But for everyone else, the folly of trying to make interest rate predictions over a business cycle and to predict both the short term rates and the long term rates along the yield curve should be apparent. No promises, of course, but the odds of saving money are with borrowers who choose variable rate plans or those that emulate them.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Housing starts expected to build on recovery data

'Housing starts have risen 80% from their cyclical lows'

Derek Abma, Financial Post

If record job gains from April weren't enough to convince you the Canadian economy is on solid ground, a few more measures are coming down the pipe over the next week that could support the case.

"In Canada, we're in the home stretch of reports on what was evidently a very strong first quarter, and the early news on Q2," CIBC World Markets chief economist Avery Shenfeld said in a research note on Friday, which followed Statistics Canada's report that 108,700 additional people found work last month-- about four times what was expected.

Today, Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. reports its April housing-start figures. Economists anticipate an annualized rate of 205,000, up from a revised figure of 200,900 in March. The last figure marked a small decline from the previous month, on a seasonally adjusted basis, but things have come a long way since the market bottomed out at 112,000 in April 2009.

"To date, housing starts have risen a massive 80% from their cyclical lows, retracing over half of the peak-to-trough drop," Millan Mulraine, senior strategist with TD Securities, said in a report released on Friday.

Mr. Mulraine, who's forecasting a start level of 210,000 for April, attributes some of the current strength to homebuyers looking to avoid the new harmonized sales taxes taking effect in Ontario and British Columbia in July. He also noted that April was warmer than usual, helping along construction efforts.

Another big report comes Wednesday in the form of merchandise trade data for March. Economists anticipate a Canadian surplus -- the amount exported minus what's imported -- of $1.6-billion, up from $1.4-billion in February. If right, it would mark the fourth straight surplus.

CIBC World Markets economist Krishen Rangasamy credited improved economic conditions globally as probably helping Canada maintain it trading-surplus streak in March, including greater demand for vehicles in the United States.

"The merchandise trade report for March will likely add to earlier data that presages (Canadian economic) growth of around 5.7% (annualized) for the first quarter," Mr. Rangasamy said. "But the party won't last forever for exporters, given the lagged effects of a strong Canadian dollar and the expected slowdown in the U.S. economy later in the year."

Speaking of the auto industry, Statistics Canada on Friday will release data on domestic new-vehicle sales for March. A 4% monthly decline is expected following an 8.1% jump in February.

The federal agency will also release March figures for manufacturing sales that day. A one% rise in the value of factory transactions is expected by economists after the slim 0.1% gain in February.

"Canadian manufacturing-sector activity has been on a breathtaking run lately, with sales rising for six consecutive months on the back of strong domestic and foreign demand," Mr. Mulraine said.

Mr. Mulraine is in line the consensus of economists in his March manufacturing forecast, citing transportation equipment as well as products made of petroleum and coal as helping to fuel the gains.

Besides these reports, a number of Canadian companies, such as George Weston and Jazz Air, will release quarterly earnings. As well, the United States will see data on March wholesale trade toomorrow, its own March trade data on Wednesday and April retail sales on Friday.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Was typo behind Wall Street plunge?

The Canadian Press, Reuters and

What was that? For a brief, heart-stopping period, stock markets plunged, currencies went crazy, bonds ran wild and investors ran for cover.

But by the end of the day U.S. stocks had recovered much of their losses, the Toronto Stock Exchange was basically flat losing 32.7 points to close at 11,842.43, and the Canadian dollar, though pummeled, was still intact.

Experts were flustered, but puzzled by the wild action, though they generally pointed to the ongoing Greek debt crisis.

Rumors also circulated that the panicky sell-off had been triggered by a U.S. stock trader mistakenly put in a sell order for 15 billion shares of Procter & Gamble on the New York Stock Exchange, instead of 15 million.

Whether that’s true or not, the stock dived to $40 from $60 within moments just before 2.30 p.m..

The Dow Jones Industrial Index also began a free-fall of about 1,000 points, or 10 per cent, in less than half an hour.

It didn’t stop with stock markets. The U.S. dollar soared, which meant the Euro plunged along with the Canadian dollar.After rising as high as 97 cents U.S, at one point the Canadian dollar was down almost 4 cents. It finished the day at 95.03 cents U.S.

Pascal Gauthier of TD Economics pointed to the Greek debt crisis as a possible trigger for the turmoil.

Jean-Paul Trichet, who heads the European Central bank, said in Lisbon Thursday that the bank’s governing council had not discussed the possibility of buying government bonds. Many analysts have speculated it might do so, as a means of providing debt-crushed governments with financial support.

“There might have been expectations that the bank might take some measures, though we were of the view that they would not,” Gauthier speculated.

He warned that other days like this could loom ahead.

“On the fiscal side, those economies that were fragile to begin with before the recession like Greece, Italy, Spain are going to be vulnerable, and markets are going to be nervous,” he said.

“This is going to stay with us. This isn’t just a one-day thing.

Camilla Sutton, currency strategist at Scotiabank, said no one was attacking the Canadian dollar. Instead, investors ran for the safety of U.S. investments.

“This story is about the U.S. dollar,” she said. “What we’re seeing is a very strong, strong U.S. dollar, because very quickly people are closing out foreign positions and moving into the deepest capital markets in the world: The U.S. and the U.S. treasury market.”

The Canadian dollar was simply trampled by the rush into the U.S., she said.

* NEW YORK—The biggest intraday point drop ever in the Dow Jones Industrial Average may have been caused by an erroneous trade entered by a person at a big Wall Street bank, multiple market sources said Thursday.

The so-called "fat finger" trade apparently involved an exchange-traded fund that holds shares of some of the biggest and most widely traded stocks, sources said. The trade apparently was put in on the Nasdaq Stock Market, sources said.

Several sources said the speculation is that the trade was entered by someone at Citigroup. A Citigroup spokesman said it was investigating the rumor but that the bank currently had no evidence that an erroneous trade had been made.

CNBC reported this afternoon that a trader entered a "b" for billion instead of an "m" for million in a trading order, setting off a series of events that led to the Dow’s biggest one-day drop since 1987.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

House prices to cool in 2011, says TD

Financial Post

OTTAWA -- The latest housing forecast from TD Economics leaves 2010 totals for sales and prices in Canada largely the same as its previous expectations in December, though that masks a wider discrepancy it now expects between a hot first half of the year and cooler second half.

The forecasting unit of Toronto-Dominion Bank released a report on Wednesday that maintained its call for housing resales this year to rise 2.1% to 475,000, and the average price to gain 9% to $349,000.

"While sales in Q1 were slightly higher than our late-2009 forecast, we view the strength as borrowing from future sales in a move by buyers and sellers to pre-empt regulatory and interest-rate changes," TD said in its report.

The bank said that people in Ontario and British Columbia are pushing ahead with home purchases to avoid higher costs associated with harmonized sales taxes that take effect in those provinces in July.

As well, it said homebuyers across the country have felt rushed to avoid higher interest rates. Major banks have already started raising their borrowing costs, and the Bank of Canada is expected to start hiking its overnight target rate from a record-low 0.25% in June or July.

The more accelerated cooling effect during the second half of this year will lead to lower prices than previously thought in 2011, TD said. It now expects the average home price to fall 2.7% to $339,700 next year; it previously called for a 1.6% price gain.

TD said housing prices in Canada are currently overvalued by about 15%, based on longer-term economic factors such as income growth. That gap should narrow to 10% by the end of next year, it said.

The gap will close further in the following two to three years, the report said, as housing prices grow at about the rate of inflation - after having averaged 8% annual gains over the last eight years - and household incomes catch up.

Bank of Montreal alleges huge mortgage fraud

By Charles Rusnell,

This house in the Bearspaw district of Calgary was bought for nearly$900,000 and in three years, its value was inflated to $2.3 million, aprofit of $1.4 million for the alleged fraudsters. (CBC) The Bank of Montreal is suing hundreds of people in Alberta, includinglawyers, mortgage brokers and four of its own employees, in what is oneof the largest alleged cases of mortgage fraud in Canadian history.Legal documents obtained exclusively by CBC News allege the bank was thetarget of a sophisticated fraud operated by 14 inter-connected groups.The documents allege the scheme generated at least $140 million, about$70 million of which was for phoney mortgages.The bank has estimated it may lose as much as $30 million.Toronto forensic accountant Al Rosen said he has never seen anythinglike it."This is massive in the sense that it is so broad and so deep," Rosensaid Tuesday. "This is [allegedly] a huge fraud. I can't think of anysituation that has so many people involved and over a period of timelike this one."Problems detected in 2006The bank said it first detected the alleged scam in 2006 when itssecurity department noticed "irregularities" in a number of mortgages inWestern Canada. Officials immediately hired a forensic accounting firm,which spent nearly a year unravelling what the bank calls asophisticated scheme. Legal documents allege millions of dollars have been transferred tosuch countries as Lebanon, India, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emiratesand Pakistan. (CBC) The bank's investigators say the scam's ringleaders would identify theworst house in a good neighbourhood. They would buy at an affordable,fair-market value price, but convince the bank it was worth much morebecause of the neighbourhood it was in.The bank, which relies on a software program to determine house pricesby neighbourhood, claims it would end up providing a grossly inflatedmortgage, and the ringleaders would pocket the difference.To carry out the alleged scheme, the bank claims masterminds wouldrecruit what's known in fraud parlance as a "straw buyer." For a paymentof $2,000 to $8,000, these straw buyers, mostly new immigrants, wouldallow their name to be used to obtain the mortgage on the house.According to the court documents, the ringleaders allegedly createdfake, inflated wage and net income documents for the straw buyers tomake them appear richer than they were.Lawyers, who are alleged to have been in on the scheme, would thenproduce the necessary legal documents for the house sale. Seventeenlawyers have been named in the bank's lawsuit.House nets $180,000In one case, a house in the Bearspaw district of Calgary was bought fornearly $900,000 and in three years, its value was inflated to $2.3million, a profit of $1.4 million for the alleged fraudsters. AnEdmonton house is alleged to have netted the scheme nearly $180,000.During its investigation, bank investigators seized records that showedmillions of dollars from the alleged scheme have been transferred tosuch countries as Lebanon, India, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emiratesand Pakistan.The Bank of Montreal said it conducted the investigation and filed thelawsuit for two reasons."One was to recover as much as possible of what was taken from the bankfrom the fraud," Ralph Marranca, the bank's spokesman told the CBC onTuesday."And secondly was to send a very strong message to fraudsters and anyonewho might contemplate something like this that the bank will pursue thisvery aggressively and will not tolerate fraud."Other banks don't appear to be as aggressive in their approach, eventhough documents indicate they may have been targeted too. Bank ofMontreal investigators found documents that showed one Calgarymanagement company had 150 suspect mortgages from 16 different financialinstitutions.Rosen said this alleged fraud illustrates how weak and ineffective thecontrols are in our banking system."To me the most exasperating part of our business is we are not doingwhat we are supposed to be doing," he said. "We are kidding ourselvesthat we have good systems, because we don't."