21 Apr

Ontario’s Premier Jump-Starts Housing Cool Down Before the Budget

General

Posted by: Sheryl Elsom

Premier Kathleen Wynne surprised the market yesterday by announcing sweeping measures aimed at cooling the red-hot housing market a full week before Ontario Budget Day. The sixteen-measure package is largely intended to do three things: Cool demand; boost supply; and limit the increases in rents. 

No one doubts that something needed to be done to dampen speculative fervour and increase the supply of both rental properties and non-rental housing in the GTA and surrounding areas. While home prices have been rising in the GTA for more than a decade, the price gains hit an inflection point 2016 with hyperbolic price gains, exaggerated well beyond reasonable levels took hold, spiraling to a sellers’ strike, rampant speculation and frenzied demand.

In most of the region, the inventory-to-sales ratio fell to less than one-month’s supply as speculators compete with first-time and other buyers, driving prices to the stratosphere. Potential sellers held back, expecting prices to continue to rise at a 30% annual rate. Many of these potential sellers feared they wouldn’t find a suitable place to live as speculators increasingly are willing to buy properties with negative carry as capitalization rates fell, expecting to make a fast buck in a year or two. This has been compounded by non-resident foreign purchases, much of which could well lie vacant, further reducing supply and often damaging existing neighborhoods. Moreover, the market is further inflated by nefarious activities on the part of unethical market participant–activities that include “paper flipping”, rigged bidding, double-dealing and falsified income and asset statements–not to mention reselling properties pre-construction, which is technically legal but sometimes reportedly involves kick-backs to developers.

Clearly, this frenzy is unsustainable and something needed to be done to avert a crash landing–a result that is in no one’s interest as it would dramatically slow economic activity and job growth in the province and beyond. The question is: Will the Ontario Fair Housing Plan–comprised of 16 initiatives–generate a soft landing and do the job of balancing housing and rental supply and demand.

Risks and Uncertainties

The most troubling measure is the expansion of rent controls to all rental properties built after 1991–condo or purpose built. While it is good for existing tenants, the potential unintended consequences are concerning. Rent controls diminish the supply of rental stock and have adverse implications for existing home markets as investors (and speculators) dump their properties in response to heightened uncertainty and already compressed capitalization rates. This is especially negative for the condo market as investors have often provided the seed money for new developments. Toronto suffers from a dearth of purpose-built rental properties owing to the rent controls introduced many years ago. There has been a burgeoning rise in the development of such properties over the past year or so, but expanded rent controls might cause many lenders, investors and developers to reassess their plans.

Setting the rent-control cap at the rate of consumer inflation to a maximum of 2.5% while occupied by the same tenant would in no way provide a sufficient reward to offset the risk and capital necessary to build new supply. Any developer and investor would find the risk-reward trade-off insufficient. The cost of maintaining rental property is far greater than the 2% rate of inflation as utility costs, maintenance fees and property taxes have gone up by multiples of that rate, which is roughly equivalent to the return of risk-free government bonds.

Boost Rental Supply

The measures introduced to increase rental housing supply are welcome, but limited. Rebating a portion of development charges, lowering new property taxes on purpose-built rentals, unlocking available provincial land and streamlining the approval process will help to offset some of the negative effects of rent control, but they will no way offset them fully.

Already about 70% of Canadian households own their own home, which is probably close to long-run peak levels. Younger people and incoming residents are likely to need rental housing just as builders will need to set rents at sufficiently high levels to mitigate the effect of rent control on longer-term returns on investment, making housing less affordable for the very people the measures are intended to help. But, again, it is applauded by current tenants, particularly those living in relatively new housing.

Cooling Demand

The measures intended to cool demand by dampening speculation and discouraging vacant housing are welcome. The 15% non-resident speculation tax (NRST) in the Greater Golden Horseshoe (see map below) levied on non-citizen, non-permanent residents and foreign corporations (with some exclusions) makes sense, but we have inadequate data to judge the magnitude of its effect. If Vancouver’s experience is any guide, the NRST should reduce home price inflation by some measure.

A tax on vacant housing and land will likely increase the rental supply as most of these properties are owned by non-resident foreigners.

The prevention of paper flipping or reselling properties pre-construction is welcome.

Biggest Uncertainty: In my view, the biggest quandary is the impact of this sweeping package on market psychology as it ripples through the economy. The speculators will be the first to run for the hills, reducing demand and increasing supply–which, of course, is the intended consequence. But taking that a step further, boomers who have been holding off listing their homes will call their realtors to do so promptly if they perceive markets are softening, further increasing supply. And buyers could prudently suspend their home search, at least for a while, in the hopes that prices will fall, further diminishing demand. The real question then becomes, will there be a soft- or a hard-landing. Stay tuned, we will be watching these developments very closely.

Dr. Sherry Cooper
Chief Economist, Dominion Lending Centres
drcooper@dominionlending.ca
12 Apr

Bank of Canada Upgrades Forecast, But Keeps Rates Unchanged – Dr. Sherry Cooper

General

Posted by: Sheryl Elsom

Bank of Canada Upgrades Forecast, But Keeps Rates Unchanged
For years now, the Governor Stephen Poloz and his Bank of Canada colleagues have held the key overnight rate unchanged at 1/2 percent, while at the Federal Reserve has hiked rates several times with more to come. The jobless rate is at a mere 4.5 percent in the US, clearly at or near full employment and the Fed policy makers have suggested they will reduce liquidity further this year and next. Once again today, the Bank of Canada has held the key overnight rate steady while upgrading their outlook for the economy.

Economists now expect the Canadian economy to grow at a rate of roughly 2.5 percent, compared to 1.4 percent last year and a mere 0.9 percent the year before. Indeed, economic activity has accelerated sharply since the middle of last year–up at a 4.3 percent annual pace over that seven-month period. Job creation has been strong since the summer. The Business Outlook Survey suggests that business investment–a disappointing underperformer–is poised to rise as the oil sector digs itself out of the rut caused by the collapse in oil prices in mid-2014. Export growth accelerated sharply until February, which hopefully is a one-month aberration and housing activity certainly remains strong–too strong in the Greater Toronto Area and its environs, as well as in parts of British Columbia.

No one expects the Bank of Canada to raise rates simply because of the housing market, as housing markets are not overheated in much of the rest of the country.

In today’s Monetary Policy Report (MPR), the Bank boosted their forecast of Canada’s economy this year to 2.6 percent from 2.1 percent in the January MPR. For 2018, growth is now projected to be 1.9 percent (slightly below the January forecast). However, the Bank suggested that the “composition of aggregate demand is uneven.” According to today’s MPR, “In the oil and gas sector, a resumption of growth in investment spending is under way in the wake of significant adjustments to past declines in commodity prices. This contributed, together with very strong consumption and residential investment, to a temporary surge in growth in the first quarter. In contrast, non-commodity business investment and exports remain weak, raising questions about the medium-term sustainability of the upturn”.

“Economic activity will be supported by rising foreign demand, federal fiscal stimulus and accommodative monetary and financial conditions. In addition, the composition of demand growth is expected to broaden: the pace of household expenditures, especially residential investment, moderates as the contributions from exports and business investment increase, albeit at a much slower pace than would normally be expected at this stage of the cycle. Ongoing competitiveness challenges and uncertainty surrounding the prospects for global trade are expected to limit this broadening of growth. A notable increase in global protectionism remains the most important source of uncertainty facing the Canadian economy”.

The Bank’s forecast remains a bit below the consensus view of Bay Street economists. The Bank has underestimated growth for many quarters. The MPR suggests that “while the degree of excess capacity has declined since the January Report, the Bank judges that in the first quarter of 2017 it remains material, between 1 1/4 and 1/4 per cent”. The output gap is now projected to close in the first half of 2018, a bit sooner than the Bank anticipated in January.

Dr. Sherry Cooper
Chief Economist, Dominion Lending Centres
drcooper@dominionlending.ca