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Jay Bryan: Did Ottawa squeeze housing at the wrong time?

Jay Bryan: Did Ottawa squeeze housing at the wrong time?

Did the Harper government blunder into overstimulating a housing market that it&#8217;s now in the process of squeezing at just the wrong time?
The question springs to mind now that new numbers show Canada&#8217;s housing market showed signs of significant softness in June, with sales falling 4.4 per cent below their year-earlier level &#8211; the first such drop in a year &#8211; as the national average home price edged down by nearly one per cent.
 

Did the Harper government blunder into overstimulating a housing market that it’s now in the process of squeezing at just the wrong time? The question springs to mind now that new numbers show Canada’s housing market showed signs of significant softness in June, with sales falling 4.4 per cent below their year-earlier level – the first such drop in a year – as the national average home price edged down by nearly one per cent.

Photograph by: Vincenzo D'Alto , The Gazette

Did the Harper government blunder into overstimulating a housing market that it’s now in the process of squeezing at just the wrong time?

The question springs to mind now that new numbers show Canada’s housing market showed signs of significant softness in June, with sales falling 4.4 per cent below their year-earlier level – the first such drop in a year – as the national average home price edged down by nearly one per cent.

This comes just as new, tighter mortgage-lending rules went into effect early in July, the key change being one that shortens the allowed repayment period on a government-backed insured mortgage to 25 years from 30.

The result is to jack up the monthly payment on a mortgage by about 10 per cent if the buyer was originally hoping to use the longer 30-year repayment option.

This is just the right medicine for an overheating real-estate market, but much more dubious when demand is already weakening. It will price some buyers, especially first-time ones, right out of the market.

Analysts, including some who favoured the tightening, are a little worried.

There was already a recent undercurrent of concern as home prices moved inexorably higher in the winter and spring: was the market setting itself for a painful fall? At TD Bank, chief economist Craig Alexander predicts an average price drop of 10 per cent to 15 per cent over the next two to three years.

Most analysts didn’t see such a big correction, although many think the priciest markets, Vancouver especially, are overdue for a dip.

But, warns economist Robert Hogue at Royal Bank, “the risks are higher now than they were before.” Hogue thought markets were cooling nicely even before the stricter rules came in. Now, he worries, “this may give a push beyond what the market needs.”

Douglas Porter, deputy chief economist at BMO Capital Markets, thinks the market will probably adjust without too much trouble, but acknowledges that he too feels a little tug of concern. “This may have been one turn of the screw too many,” he says. “That’s the risk.”

The irony is that it was under this same Harper government that Canada loosened its mortgage rules so much that by late-2006 you could borrow for 40 years with nothing down. The then-governor of the Bank of Canada, David Dodge, saw this as so irresponsible that he broke the central bank’s usual rule against criticizing government policy.

It’s what foolish governments often do: curry favour by loosening policy too much in good times, only to have to tighten as conditions worsen.

So far, though, the market still appears to be healthy, with modest price gains in most big cities across Canada, but a downtrend in sales pointing to the possibility of further cooling in the very costly Vancouver and Toronto markets.

Indeed, in the country’s priciest market, Vancouver, prices actually fell by nearly one per cent last month, according to the Home Price Index compiled by the Canadian Real Estate Association. Over the entire past year, Vancouver prices are only up by a modest 1.7 per cent.

This evaporation of price gains in a market that was red hot last year was so dramatic that it helped stabilize the entire Canadian market. The average Canadian price fell by 0.8 per cent from a year ago, but once you remove Vancouver from the numbers, the average price elsewhere goes up by 3.2 per cent, not down.

This resulted from the unwinding of frenzied demand early last year for some of the highest-priced homes on the Vancouver market, said Hogue, the Royal Bank economist. Possibly because foreign demand waned, such homes are now much slower to sell.

Toronto prices barely moved last month, edging up by 0.2 per cent, although earlier gains pushed the average up by a strong 7.9 per cent year-over-year.

Montreal, where last month’s gain was a modest 0.3 per cent, is ahead by a total of 2.7 per cent over the past year, according to the Home Price Index, which, unlike simple price averages, seeks to eliminate the distortions caused by varying numbers of high-priced and lower-priced homes sold in different months.

Calgary stands out as the only city where the number of sales went up significantly – by a robust 17 per cent, in fact – but prices rose by a more modest 5.3 per cent.

jbryan@montrealgazette.com