House price growth in Toronto poses quite a problem for Canada

by Shaun Richards

One of the economic themes of these times has been the boom in asset prices caused by ultra easy monetary policy and the way that establishment’s present this as “wealth effects” leading to economic growth when in fact some and often much of this is in my opinion inflation. For example those investing in government bonds have benefited from rises in prices and this is presented as a “wealth effect” but on the other side of the coin someone taking out an annuity faces much lower yields and much lower income from a set sum. Yet the “wealth loss” for them is not counted. There is also the issue of house prices where again rises are presented as an economic benefit which for some they are but both first-time buyers and those wishing to trade up in the market face higher prices.

The house price issue is one which has dogged economic comment about Canada and merited a substantial mention by the Bank of Canada last week. This is significant because central banks  look away from such matters until they feel they have no other choice. The emphasis is mine.

Housing activity has also been stronger than expected. We have incorporated some of this strength in a higher profile for residential investment, although we still anticipate slowing over the projection horizon. The current pace of activity in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) and parts of the Golden Horseshoe region is unlikely to be sustainable, given fundamentals. That said, the contribution of the housing sector to growth this year has been revised up substantially. Price growth in the GTA has accelerated sharply in recent months, suggesting that speculative forces are at work. Governing Council sees stronger household spending as an upside risk to inflation in the short-term, but a downside risk over the longer term.

What is happening to house prices in Toronto?

Canada Statistics has an index for the price of new houses.

On the strength of price increases for new houses in Toronto, the NHPI rose 3.3% over the 12-month period ending in February. This was the largest annual growth at the national level since June 2010.

Chart 2 Chart 2: The metropolitan region of Toronto posts the highest year-over-year price increase
The metropolitan region of Toronto posts the highest year-over-year price increase

Chart 2: The metropolitan region of Toronto posts the highest year-over-year price increase

Toronto recorded an 8.6% year-over-year price increase, the largest among the metropolitan areas surveyed, followed by Victoria (+6.3%), St. Catharines-Niagara (+6.2%), and Windsor (+6.2%). The gain for Windsor was the largest reported since January 1990.

Care is needed with such measures as for example the UK has hit trouble. So let us look further, the editorial of the Toronto Sun told us this yesterday.

house prices are skyrocketing in Toronto (the price of an average detached home is now over $1 million and has risen 33% in the past year)

The Toronto Life has something that is even more eye-catching.

Sale of the Week: The $2.7-million house that proves asking prices are meaningless in Summerhill

Ah too high eh? Nope.

The listing agents say they priced the house at what they thought was market value. Eight offers came in, after which the agents gave everyone the chance to improve. Seven did, and the sellers accepted the offer with the fewest conditions and best price, for more than $750,000 over asking. This may not have been a complete fluke: two other houses on Farnham Avenue have sold in the $2.5-million price range in the past year.

You have to question the listing agents there of course but it is an interesting price for a house which is very smart inside but does not look anything special from the front. We do get perhaps more of a realistic perspective from yesterday’s “sale of the week” as we have a comparison.

Previously sold for: $659,000, in 2007

Okay and now.

The sellers made the easy decision to go with the highest offer, at more than $400,000 over asking, $1,656,000.

Yesterday the Royal LePage house price survey told us this.

In the first quarter, the aggregate price of a home in the Greater Toronto Area increased 20.0 per cent to $759,241, while the price of a home in the City of Toronto rose 17.0 per cent to $763,875. Home prices also increased significantly in the surrounding GTA regions, with suburbs such as Richmond Hill, Oshawa,Vaughan, Markham and Oakville posting increases of 31.5 per cent, 28.2 per cent, 25.8 per cent, 23.2 per cent and 23.1 per cent to $1,209,741, $500,105, $985,534, $970,216 and $987,001

What about monetary policy?

According to the Bank of Canada it is very expansionary or loose.

The neutral nominal policy rate in Canada is estimated
to be between 2 .5 and 3 .5 per cent, 25 basis points
lower than previously estimated

If we maintain a straight face at the chutzpah and indeed fantasy that they know that to that degree of accuracy we can see that with an official interest-rate of 0.5% they are some 2.5% below neutral.

If we look at the exchange-rate then there was another boost as the trade-weighted Loonie or CERI fell from the low 120s in 2011/12 to a low of 89 as 2016 opened. It then rallied a little and over the year from March 2016 has in fact started at 95 and ended there. There are two issues here that need to be noted. Firstly this is an effective exchange rate with an elephant in the room as the US Dollar is 76.2% of it! Secondly due to its plentiful stock of raw materials the currency is often at the mercy of commodity price movements.

Moving to the money supply we see that the taps are open pretty wide. The broad measure has seen its annual rate of growth rise from the 4.5% of late 2010 to 7.7% in February of this year. There was a dip in narrow money growth in March but it is still increasing at an annual rate of 9%.

Household debt

Canada Statistics tells us this.

Total household credit market debt (consumer credit, and mortgage and non-mortgage loans) reached $2,028.7 billion in the fourth quarter. Consumer credit was $596.5 billion, while mortgage debt stood at $1,329.6 billion.

If we compare to incomes we see this.

Household credit market debt as a proportion of adjusted household disposable income (excluding pension entitlements) edged up to 167.3% from 166.8% in the third quarter. In other words, there was $1.67 in credit market debt for every dollar of adjusted household disposable income.

On the other side of the ledger that was something to please the Bank of Canada.

National wealth, the value of non-financial assets in the Canadian economy, rose 1.4% to $9,920.0 billion at the end of the fourth quarter. The main contributors to growth were real estate and natural resources. The value of real estate grew by $93.0 billion while the value of natural resource wealth increased $29.4 billion.

Although the rest of us will wonder how much of that $93 billion is from the Toronto area?

Comment

There is a lot to consider here as whilst the word bubble is over used it is hard to avoid thinking of it as we look at Toronto and its housing market. If we look at wages growth it has been slowing from around 3% to 0..9% in Canada in terms of hourly wages so it is not any sort of driver. The price moves are if anything even more extreme than seen in London.

If we move to the economics then if you own a property in Toronto and want to move elsewhere you have a windfall gain and good luck to you. A genuine wealth effect. But against that all new buyers are facing rampant inflation and there are clear wealth losses for them. We are back to a society of haves and have note here,

A big factor is we see another place where foreign funds are flowing in and like in the other cases we are left to mull this from Transparency International.

Transparency International Canada’s analysis of land title records found that nearly a half of the 100 most valuable residential properties in Greater Vancouver are held through structures that hide their beneficial owners.

Canada is of course far from alone in such worries.

Meanwhile the Bank of Canada finds itself not far off irrelevant which is awkward to say the least for a central planner. Of course where it is relevant it is making things worse.

 

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