Home Sales Slip A Bit In January As Supply Tightens Pushing Up Prices
Statistics released today by the Canadian Real Estate Association (CREA) show that national existing-home sales dipped between December and January owing to a dearth of new listings, especially in the GTA. As the CREA chart below shows, the pace of monthly home resales nevertheless remained strong.
Home sales recorded over Canadian MLS® Systems declined by 2.9% in January 2020, although they remain among the stronger monthly readings of the last few years.
Transactions were down in a little over half of all local markets in January, with the national result most impacted by a slowdown of more than 18% in the Lower Mainland of British Columbia. According to CREA, “While there were few notable gains in January, it should be noted that many of the weaker results have come alongside a shortage of new supply in markets where inventories are already very tight.”
Actual (not seasonally adjusted) sales activity was still up 11.5% compared to January 2019, marking the best sales figures for the month in 12 years. Transactions surpassed year-ago levels in about two-thirds of all local markets, including most of the largest urban markets. Some of the larger markets where sales were down, such as Ottawa and Windsor-Essex, are currently among some of the tightest supplied markets in Canada.
“Home price growth continues to pick up in housing markets where listings are in short supply, particularly in Southern, Central and Eastern Ontario,” said Jason Stephen, president of CREA. “Meanwhile, ample supply across the Prairies and in Newfoundland and Labrador is resulting in ongoing competition among sellers.”
In many tight housing markets, potential sellers appear to be waiting until the spring to list their properties when the weather is better and more buyers are actively looking.
The number of newly listed homes was little changed in January, edging up a slight 0.2% on the heels of a series of declines which have left new listings at a near-decade low. January’s small month-over-month (m-o-m) change came as the result of declines in a number of larger markets, including Calgary, Edmonton and Montreal, which were offset by gains in the York and Durham Regions of the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) where new supply bounced back at the start of 2020 following a sharp slowdown towards the end of last year.
With sales down and new listings up slightly in January, the national sales-to-new listings ratio fell back to 65.1% compared to 67.2% posted in December 2019. Even so, the long-term average for this measure of housing market balance is 53.8%. It has been significantly above that long-term average for the last four months. Barring an unforeseen change in recent trends between the balance of supply and demand for homes, price gains appear poised to accelerate in 2020.
Indeed, concern is growing that Canada’s largest housing market may be about to experience a new round of froth, similar to 2016. “It’s looking more and more like early-2016 all over again for the Toronto housing market. This is not a good sign,” wrote RBC Economics senior economist Robert Hogue. “Those were the days when things started to heat up uncomfortably, propelling property values sky-high in the ensuing year.”
Based on a comparison of the sales-to-new listings ratio with the long-term average, close to two-thirds of all local markets were in balanced market territory in January 2020. Apart from a few areas of Alberta and Saskatchewan, the remainder were all favouring sellers. As the chart below shows, the GTA housing market is in sellers’ market territory.
There were 4.2 months of inventory on a national basis at the end of January 2020 – the same as in November and December and the lowest level since the summer of 2007. This measure of market balance is now a full month below its long-term average of 5.2 months.
National measures of market balance continue to mask significant and increasing regional variations. The number of months of inventory has swollen far beyond long-term averages in the Prairie provinces and Newfoundland & Labrador, giving homebuyers ample choice in these regions. By contrast, the measure is running well below long-term averages in Ontario, Quebec and the Maritime provinces, resulting in increased competition among buyers for listings and providing fertile ground for price gains. The measure is still in balanced market territory in British Columbia overall but is tightening in the Vancouver area as the chart below indicates.
The Aggregate Composite MLS® Home Price Index (MLS® HPI) rose 0.8% in January 2020 compared to December, marking its eighth consecutive monthly gain. It is now up 5.5% from last year’s lowest point in May and has set new records in each of the past six months (see the CREA chart below). The MLS® HPI in January was up from the previous month in 14 of the 18 markets tracked by the index. (see CREA table below).
Home price trends have generally been stabilizing in most Prairie markets in recent months following lengthy declines. Meanwhile, prices are clearly on the rise again in British Columbia and in Ontario’s Greater Golden Horseshoe (GGH). Further east, price growth in Ottawa, Montreal and Moncton continues as it has for some time now, with Montreal and particularly Ottawa having strengthened noticeably in recent months.
Comparing home prices to year-ago levels yields considerable variations across the country, although for the most part trends are still regionally split along east/west lines, with rising gains from Ontario east, and a mixed bag of smaller gains and declines in B.C. and the Prairies.
Home prices in Greater Vancouver (-1.2%) remain slightly below year-ago levels, but declines are still shrinking. Meanwhile, January saw prices back in positive y-o-y territory in the Fraser Valley (+0.3%). Elsewhere in British Columbia, home prices logged y-o-y increases in the Okanagan Valley (+3.5%), Victoria (+3.4%) and elsewhere on Vancouver Island (+4%).
Calgary, Edmonton and Saskatoon continued to post small y-o-y price declines, while the y-o-y gap has now widened to -6.9% in Regina.
In Ontario, home price growth has re-accelerated across most of the GGH, with a number of markets getting close to double digits. Meanwhile, price gains in recent years have continued uninterrupted in Ottawa (+13.7%), Montreal (+9.8%) and Moncton (+6.4%).
All benchmark home categories tracked by the index accelerated further into positive territory on a y-o-y basis, with similar sized gains among the different property types. Condo apartment unit prices posted the biggest y-o-y increase (+5%) followed closely by two-storey single-family homes (+4.8%), one-storey single-family homes (+4.4%) and townhouse/row units (+4.2%). Earlier this cycle, condo prices markedly outpaced the single-family sector, but in the past year, detached homes have more than caught up.
Also, note in the table below that the benchmark home price in Toronto-area Oakville-Milton at $1.05 million is now above the benchmark price in Greater Vancouver of $1,026. The GTA has a much larger and more diverse housing market with a benchmark price of $.841 million.
Consumer Unsecured Debt is a Bigger Problem Than Mortgage Debt
Bottom Line: Housing markets in Canada are strengthening as interest rates continue to fall, job growth is robust, wage gains are sizable and foreign immigration boosts demand. While the stress test qualifying rate remains stuck at 5.19%, market forces emanating from the coronavirus epidemic are pushing down market rates, and TD Bank has cut its posted rate to 4.99%. If downward pressure continues, which is likely given the news out of China, other big banks may follow the TD lead, reducing the qualifying rate. Regardless, contract mortgage rates are once again under downward pressure.
The Bank of Canada is unlikely to cut its overnight benchmark rate when it meets again March 4. It will point to the resilience of the Canadian economy and the debt exposure of Canadian households. To be sure, much has been made of the eye-catching fact that consumer insolvencies rose by 9.5% in 2019, the most substantial annual increase since the 2008-09 recession. But it should be emphasized that this reflected excessive credit card and auto loans, not mortgage debt.
Consumer insolvencies are comprised of household bankruptcies and proposals (see chart below). Bankruptcies are falling and have been since the economic recovery began in 2009. Last year’s increase reflected a rise in the number of “proposals”—offers to pay creditors a percentage of what is owed and extend the repayment schedule, a remedy available to individuals with up to $250,000 in unsecured debt.
Mortgage debt, on the other hand, has been rock solid. The latest data from the Canadian Bankers Association shows just 0.23% of mortgages were more than 90 days in arrears as of August 2019, matching the lowest rate since 1990. That is not to say mortgage debt isn’t a source of stress for some households—mortgages account for 45% of the average household’s debt servicing costs. But those having trouble making debt payments are likely prioritizing their mortgages over credit cards and auto loans. There has also been an increase in insolvencies among individuals without mortgage debt.
The Bank of Canada and the regulators would do better to focus on the curtailment of excessive unsecured household borrowing than to fixate on mortgage stress testing alone.
Dr. Sherry Cooper
Chief Economist, Dominion Lending Centre
Optimistic data from our Chief Economist Dr Cooper!
January follows December in erasing the weak November job numbers providing good news for the Canadian economy. Manufacturing led the way as the jobless rate fell, and wage growth accelerated meaningfully. The robust labour market, coupled with consumer confidence holding firm in January at about historical averages, is a reassuring sign for the resilience of the economy.
Canada’s economy created 34,500 net new jobs in January, all in full-time positions, beating economists’ expectations. The unemployment rate fell slightly to 5.5%, wage growth accelerated to 4.4%, and hours worked rose by 0.5%. This second strong reading of Canada’s job market will reinforce the Bank of Canada’s assessment of the underlying health of the Canadian economy.
Slowing activity in the second half of last year was more a function of temporary disruptions and geopolitical tensions. Some of these factors remain, augmented by the coronavirus, which has disrupted travel and trade and dramatically reduced energy and other commodity prices.
Manufacturing and construction led the job gains, and agriculture picked up as well. Quebec, Manitoba and New Brunswick posted employment gains. Fewer people were employed in Alberta, and the jobless rate spiked in Saskatchewan. The resumed decline in oil and other commodity prices has hit both prairie provinces hard.
British Columbia continued to boast the lowest unemployment rate by province, followed by Manitoba, Quebec and Ontario (See table below).
Bottom Line: Canada’s economy has been boosted by the fastest pace of immigration in the Group of Seven countries, spurring a housing boom that is pushing up demand for everything from plumbers to electricians. Indeed, Bloomberg News recently highlighted the more substantial surge in male employment in Canada relative to the US, where women have eclipsed men as the majority of jobholders.
Female job growth in Canada is also strong, and labour force participation rates are higher in Canada than in the US. The jobless rate for women age 25 and older is only 4.6% in Canada, compared to 4.9% for men.
According to Bloomberg News:
Jared Menkes, executive vice president at Toronto-based Menkes Developments Ltd., said finding enough labour is a constant source of angst. Central Toronto posted the fastest-growing population in North America last year with a dozen office buildings and countless condos under construction, along with 25 light rail stations, hospitals and all sorts of infrastructure work (see chart below). “We are short actual labour, whether it’s a crane operator, whether it’s drywallers, electricians, plumbers, drivers,” Menkes said. “We’re short truck drivers, architects, consultants.”
Roughly half of all immigrants to Canada located in Ontario, but as the second chart below shows, Quebec and British Columbia garnered their fair share of new residents as well. The Bank of Canada highlights this factor in suggesting that the economy will continue to grow in 2020 and 2021. Certainly, it is a strong positive for the housing markets in these provinces.
Dr. Sherry Cooper
Chief Economist, Dominion Lending Centres
Thank you Dr Cooper, this reduction in Qualifying rate is great news and a great way to start the Spring Market!
Market interest rates have fallen sharply since the coronavirus-led investor flight to the safety of government bonds. The 5-year government bond yield–a harbinger of conventional mortgage rates–now stands at 1.34%, down sharply from the 1.60+% range it was trading in before the virus became global news (see chart below).
This morning, one of the Big-Six banks finally reacted. TD cut its posted 5-year fixed rate to 4.99%. TD’s posted rate had previously been at 5.34%, making this a 36 basis point cut. Other banks had lowered their qualifying rate to 5.19% last July, leading the Bank of Canada to cut its 5-year conventional mortgage rate to 5.19%. This is the qualifying rate under the B-20 rule introduced on January 1, 2018.
Even the regulators have been questioning the efficacy and fairness of using the big-bank posted rate as a qualifying rate for mortgage stress testing.
On January 24, the Assistant Superintendent of OSFI’s Regulation Sector, Ben Gully, gave a speech at the C.D. Howe Institute suggesting that the B-20 qualifying mortgage rate historically would be no more than 200 basis points above contract rates. He said that OSFI chose the “best available rate at the time.”
He went on to say that for many years, the difference between the benchmark rate and the average contract rate was 200 bps. However, this gap “has been widening more recently, suggesting that the benchmark is less responsive to market changes than when it was first proposed. We are reviewing this aspect of our qualifying rate, as the posted rate is not playing the role that we intended. As always, we will share our results with our federal partners. This will help to inform the advice OSFI might provide to the Minister, as requested in the mandate letter to him.”
By keeping posted rates too high, the Big-Six banks have inflated the qualifying rate, making it more difficult than necessary to pass the stress test to get a mortgage.
While TD’s rate cut is welcome news, its posted rate is still too high by historical standards. Given today’s average contract rates, the posted rate should be at least 20 bps lower still.
Banks have a strong incentive to inflate their posted mortgage rate. For one thing, they are the basis for the calculation of big-bank mortgage penalties. Also, they are the minimum qualifying rate.
The posted rate does not appropriately reflect the state of the mortgage market as few borrowers would pay this rate. Interestingly, banks often move this rate in lock-step, or close to it, reflecting their dominant oligopolistic position in the marketplace.
If a couple of the other big banks follow TD’s lead, the Bank of Canada benchmark rate will be below 5% for the first time since January 2018 when the new B-20 rules were adopted. Lowering the stress test rate by 20 bps from 5.19% to 4.99% would require roughly 1.8% less income to qualify for a mortgage on the average Canadian home price (assuming a 20% downpayment), increasing buying power by 2%. This doesn’t sound like much, but it can have a meaningful psychological impact on already improving housing markets. The latest CREA data shows that the national average home price surged 9.6% year-over-year in December. A lower stress test rate would make a busy spring housing market even more active.
Dr. Sherry Cooper
Chief Economist, Dominion Lending Centres
Greta news regarding rates! …………
Global investors are selling stocks and piling into the safety of bonds in response to fears that the Wuhan coronavirus could disrupt global economic activity. Gold prices, another haven, have also risen. The Government of Canada 5-year bond yield traded this morning at roughly 1.35%, well below its nearly 1.70% level one month ago. The 5-year yield leads fixed mortgage rates, so if this trend persists, we might see widely available fixed-5-year rates in the 2.50% range once again in February.
Dr. Sherry Cooper
Chief Economist, Dominion Lending Centres