Monday, December 7, 2009

The 'B' Word

Today's post is brought to you by the letter 'B'.

It could be 'B' as in Bubble, as more and more people are starting to acknowledge here in Canada.

As faithful readers know, Bank of Canada Governor Mark Carney’s pledge to freeze record-low borrowing costs through June 2010 is single-handedly responsible for the stunning recovery in home prices.

'The Cabel' disputes this assertion, insisting that the state of the housing market is simply reflecting what Carney has called “an element of pent-up demand” (Carney speech to reporters Nov. 19).

“Rates are exceptionally low, affordability has improved in part because of the low level of interest rates and part because of some former price adjustments, and we are seeing a housing-price response,” said the Governor.

Pundits insist that they don’t believe that there’s a bubble, that most of the market action is from typical Canadians trying to buy their first home or move up. Rising prices? That's just an unintended consequence of the current low, low rates.

But when Canadians are waiving conditions and paying 10% (or more) than a home's asking price you know it's not a regular market - particularly when we sit in one of the worst economic times since the Great Depression of the 1930s.

The most notable thing here is that Carney insists that what's happening in the housing sector is simply an unintended by-product of his attempt to help the economy recover from its first recession in 17 years. Carney says he has given 'clear guidance’ on why he has taken the actions with interest rates he has.

“Rates are exceptionally low, they are exceptionally low for a purpose and we have given pretty clear guidance on how long we expect they will have to remain at these levels in order to achieve the inflation target,” Carney told reporters Oct. 22.

But Eric Lascelles, chief economist and rates strategist with TD Securities Inc., raises a point that more and more people finally raising. In Toronto Lascelles noted that the central bank hasn’t talked much about house prices, “to the bafflement of international investors.”

“It makes perfect sense that there is a good appetite for the housing market,” Lascelles said. What no one seems to want to address is “whether this is a bubble in the making or simply a recovery from earlier softness.”

David Laidler, a former visiting economist and special adviser at the Bank of Canada and now a fellow at the C.D. Howe Institute, a Toronto research group notes that “the worry has got to be that you might be getting a housing bubble out of this.” Laidler is a member of the institutes's Monetary Policy Council, which studies central-bank decisions and said in a Dec. 3 statement that a “possible unintended effect” of Carney’s commitment is “the buoyancy of mortgage lending, particularly variable-rate mortgages, and the housing market."

Unintended... there's that word again.

And it's that word that rankles the most.

Do people truly believe that the astonishing rebound in housing prices - with no intervention from the Bank of Canada - is simply an 'unintended' by-product of Carney's actions to recover from recession?

Maybe today's 'B' word actually stands for 'B' as in Banks.

In a fascinating report from Sprott Asset Management, the average leverage ratio of the Canadian banking system is analysed and compared.

Sprott notes that the average leverage ratio of the Canadian banking system is higher than that of the largest US banks in all periods reviewed.

Now each of the top ten US banks received common equity injections by both shareholders and the US government, thereby improving their respective leverage ratios during this economic crisis.

And the Canadian Banks?
  • "Looking at the Canadian system more closely, all five Canadian banks are levered at an average of 31:1, which is actually the lowest leverage ratio during the three years that we reviewed. This implies that if the Canadian banks’ tangible assets were to drop by 3%, their tangible common equity would effectively be wiped out.

    Now, that doesn’t mean they would go bankrupt per se, but it does give us an indication of how little asset prices would have to decline in order to wipe out their tangible common equity. These leverage ratios worry us because they leave such a razor thin margin for error on the ‘tangible asset’ side of the leverage equation. We are always cautious about investing in companies that have zero or negative common equity - we’ve seen what happens to public companies that trade at those levels, General Motors being a good example.

    Acknowledging the leverage levels above, you may wonder how the Canadian banks escaped the 2008 meltdown unscathed. The answer is that they received significant assistance from the Canadian government. First, they received $65 billion in liquidity injections from the Insured Mortgage Purchase Program (IMPP), whereby Canada Mortgage and Housing (CMHC) purchased insured mortgages from Canadian banks to provide additional liquidity on the asset side of their balance sheets.

    Next, the Bank of Canada provided them with an additional $45 billion in temporary liquidity facilities. Finally, a Canadian Bank also received assistance from the Canada Pension Plan (CPP) through the purchase of $4 billion in mortgages prior to the IMPP program, for a total government expenditure of $114 billion."
When the Bank of Canada slashed interest rate to dirt they helped to artificially preserve real estate asset prices by creating another irrational housing euphoria in the country.

Unintended... Or a deliberate calculation to preserve the "razor thin margin on the tangible asset side" of the Canadian Banks leverage equation... a group the Canadian Government had just moved heaven and earth to protect?

Sprott goes on to note that,
  • "for reference, the entire tangible common equity of the Canadian Banks in 2008 was $68 billion. Can you put two and two together?"

    "The Canadian government injected a sum through mortgage purchases worth more than the entire tangible common equity of the Canadian banking system! On top of that, the Bank of Canada provided more than 50% of the tangible common equity of the system in emergency liquidity facilities."
The Canadian housing market continues to baffle observers in the United States and around the world. We are daily fed propaganda that tells us that the dramatic performance of our nation's real estate during this worldwide economic crisis is all a result of the solid foundation of our nation's banks and the virtuous conservatism of the Canadian financial system.


The Sprott report is simply the latest that sumarizes the many concerns critics have had about what's happening with Canadian Real Estate, CMHC and the banking system.

Increasingly it seems we are only a couple moves away from the symbiotic relationship that exists between those two other well known 'B' words: Boom and Bust.

The 'Boom' is currently happening and observers are raising alarm bells.

Be wary. The next time you hear "give me a 'B'...", you might just see the market kick back the word investors dread the most... bust! A development which would lead to today's true 'B' word; a word that summarizes our thoughts on all this malarky about 'unintended' consequences .

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  1. Brilliant! Brilliant, I say! Best post yet!

  2. There's this 'conspiracy theorist' I read once whose main thesis is that "the primary function of government is to pretend to fail".

    Some people get very rich off of these failures while the bills are picked up by current and future taxpayers. These 'failures' are also usually met will calls to increase regulatory powers for the government, along with bigger budgets.

    I'm beginning to think he makes a very good case...

  3. Hi and thanks for the article. Well, maybe the housing market is recovring...but probably not. I must admit that I am very skeptic when someone's talking about a recovery. I think people should be very careful before they decide to take a loan to afford to buy a house these days. It seems wise to me to consult a professional first to make sure you'll be able to pay the money back.
    All the best,