Harper says no need for action in housing market, as rate wars rage

“We continue to watch the housing market and the lending and borrowing situation very carefully," Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Wednesday.
“We continue to watch the housing market and the lending and borrowing situation very carefully," Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Wednesday. CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Wednesday Ottawa is closely watching developments in the still-hot housing market, but there’s no need for another intervention.

“I’m not saying I’m unconcerned. We are watching it. We’re not planning to take any immediate action,” Harper told reporters after an event in Mississauga, Ont.

“We continue to watch the housing market and the lending and borrowing situation very carefully,” he said.

The Prime Minister made the remarks as Canada’s big banks made fresh cuts to mortgage lending rates, with the Bank of Montreal leading the market lower by slicing its 5-year, fixed rate to 2.79 per cent.

That should help rev up home sales across the country this spring, even as buyers confront affordability constraints in big centres — namely Vancouver and Toronto.

There are also concerns though that Canadians have piled on too much debt and that some pockets of the housing market have become “overheated.”

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MORE: Spring real estate market heats up in Toronto, Vancouver, realtors say

But with borrowing rates edging back toward all-time lows, Harper said debt-servicing costs are falling and default rates remain extremely low.

Harper said Wednesday he believes Canada’s financial institutions remain strong and well capitalized.

The last time the big banks cut mortgage rates to their current levels, in 2013, then-Finance Minister Jim Flaherty publicly criticized lenders for their “race to the bottom” approach. Lenders raised rates after the warning.

Flaherty’s public criticism was preceded by a series of mortgage-tightening rules were implemented, chiefly in 2012 when amortization periods for insured home loans were capped at 25 years.

MORE: IMF warns over Canada’s ‘overheated housing market’ — again

Lending re-accelerates

While the moves created a lull in lending growth, experts have noted a re-acceleration in recent months.

“Following a sustained period of stable year-over-year increases, mortgage growth accelerated for the third consecutive month in January,” RBC economists said in a research note published earlier this month.

Total outstanding home loans grew by 5.4 per cent from the year-ago level to mark the fastest rate of growth since November 2013, RBC said.

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Prices cooling

The faster pace of lending appears to be concentrated to within a dwindling number of markets, though, namely — again — Vancouver and Toronto.

Resale and pricing data published by the Canada Real Estate Association last week show the country’s two most expensive markets propping up national figures, which otherwise would be far weaker.

“The national average home price remains skewed by sales activity in Greater Vancouver and Greater Toronto, which are among Canada’s most active and expensive housing markets,” the association said.

MORE: Home prices are cooling everywhere but red-hot Vancouver, Toronto

The average benchmark price for a home in Canada continued to rise at a surprisingly strong pace last month, climbing 6.3 per cent, to $431,812. But excluding those two markets, the average price gain would have come in at a much tamer 1.5 per cent, to an average price of $326,910.

Calgary, formerly the hottest housing market in the country as higher oil prices bolstered an active market, still saw average prices climb nearly 6 per cent last month, according to CREA. But “the increase was far smaller than gains posted last year and the smallest since December 2012,” the association said.

“In other markets from West to East, prices were up compared to year-ago levels by between two and two-and-a-half per cent in the Fraser Valley, Victoria, and Vancouver Island, while holding steady in Saskatoon, Ottawa, and Greater Montreal, and falling in Regina and Greater Moncton,” CREA said.

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— With files from the Canadian Press