OTTAWA CITIZEN MARCH 10, 2012
Why is the federal government warning Canadians about debt while it is encouraging aggressive mortgage lending?
When it comes to interest rates and housing prices, it's difficult to see the thread of consistency in federal government policy. Bank of Canada governor Mark Carney and Finance Minister Jim Flaherty frequently warn Canadians that levels of household debt are too high. At the same time, the Bank of Canada's low interest rates make possible the low mortgage rates that are fuelling the housing market.
The government encourages risky mortgage lending even more by facilitating it through the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation. The government-owned mortgage insurer charges a substantial premium to home buyers with less than 20 per cent to put down, a federally mandated practice that effectively takes the risk out of mortgage lending for Canada's banks.
As concerns about a contraction in Canadian housing prices increase, the CMHC is finally getting some long overdue scrutiny. This week, the Ottawa-based Macdonald-Laurier Institute recommended a thorough review of how Canada finances mortgages. The institute questioned whether home buyers are paying too much for CMHC mortgage insurance, a fee which can be up to 2.9 per cent of your loan, higher if you are self-employed.
This mortgage insurance fee costs home buyers thousands of dollars, and the institute asks whether the fees are unduly high. The fact that the CM-HC has returned profits to the federal government of $14 billion over a decade suggests that this is a cash cow.
Other organizations, including the International Monetary Fund and the C.D. Howe Institute, are worried that the publicly owned CMHC has taken on too much mortgage liability, exposing Canadian taxpayers to undue risk. While there is a debate about whether Canada has a housing bubble, housing prices have increased 44 per cent since 2006. The CMHC's total loan insurance portfolio is now $541 billion, up from $350 billion in 2007. The Howe institute has suggested encouraging private mortgage insurers to play a larger role.
The main question, generally unasked, is why a federal agency has to take the risk out of mortgage lending for Canada's big banks. It's particularly pertinent with banks lowering rates again this week as they fight for more lending businesses. Normal businesses take risks. Why not our banks?
Our financial leaders say they are against debt, but their policies encourage it, and the government makes a tidy profit off insuring it. As long as those policies persist, they should spare us the lectures.
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