Nestled in the balance sheets of Canada’s biggest banks are fears that the economy is set for a rough patch that could see more Canadians defaulting on their loans.
While some experts say the country’s banks are just “being prudent,” they say that move signals choppy waters ahead for Canadians with outstanding loans as interest rates continue to put pressure on household budgets.
Canada’s five biggest banks — RBC, Scotiabank, CIBC, BMO and TD Bank — moved in lockstep this past week to increase their loan loss provisions as they reported second-quarter earnings. All except for CIBC missed earnings expectations in the period.
Loan loss provisions, or provisions for credit losses, are essentially money that banks set aside in case the loans they’ve given out to clients go sour.
Laurence Booth, finance professor at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, says banks always try to put aside more money to cover these losses if they think their clients — be they everyday consumers, commercial customers or homeowners with a mortgage — are more likely to default on their loans.
With fears of a recession rumbling for much of the past year, Canada’s banks are building up their reserves in case the economy takes a hit and Canadians or businesses aren’t able to pay down their loans.
“This is (as) regular as clockwork. Whenever we get a slowdown in the economy, or a forecast of a slowdown …(the banks) increase their provisions,” Booth tells Global News.
Booth notes, as well, that just because banks are raising their provisions doesn’t mean they’ll need them if a pronounced recession doesn’t come to pass.
The last time Canadian banks raised their loan loss provisions by significant magnitudes was at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, when they feared consumers would be out of work and without steady income for an uncertain period of time.
Gregory Taylor, chief investment officer at Purpose Investments, says banks quickly lowered those provisions again once the federal government stepped in with COVID support programs in the early months of the pandemic.
“Now we’re seeing them reverse that, put them back on and try to be a little bit cautious heading into what could be a volatile period,” Taylor says.
“The banks are being a little prudent, from this point of view.”
Canadian banks not immune to U.S. turmoil
Canadian bank loan provisions also extend to lenders’ activities in the U.S. market, Booth notes, where the financial system has faced turmoil in recent months over the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank and other regional players.
While Canada’s large and well-capitalized banks have been well-insulated from the specific vulnerabilities that spurred uncertainty south of the border, Booth says banks such as TD have been pushing more into the U.S. market in recent years and have to adjust their risk profiles accordingly.
“The strength of the Canadian banks has allowed them to move into the U.S. with acquisitions, but that then exposes them to the risks of the U.S. market, which generally has higher provisions for credit losses,” he says.
TD Bank’s planned $13.4-billion acquisition of U.S. regional bank First Horizon was scuttled earlier this month after regulators denied the necessary approvals for the deal.
While the acquisition’s collapse was a factor in TD’s earnings miss last quarter, the extra capital the bank now has on hand because of the failed deal is helpful given the dour economic outlook, said CEO Bharat Masrani on an earnings call.
“We are going through an uncertain period here from an economic perspective … so to have the level of capital we have, that is a good thing,” he said.
Taylor agrees that it was probably good for TD overall that it didn’t have to pay the original price it offered for First Horizon as regional banks in the U.S. go through a revaluation.
Some analysts have said TD should take the opportunity to pause and rethink its U.S. expansion strategy.
“TD should revisit the idea of whether or not they should be pursuing aggressive growth in United States banking through acquisitions,” Veritas analyst Nigel D’Souza told Reuters this week.
What do higher loan loss provisions mean for consumers?
Canada’s banks are battening down the hatches on the loan side of their businesses at the same time as Canadians’ debt levels, particularly mortgage debt, continue to climb.
The Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. (CMHC) said this past week that the country has the highest household debt in the G7, with the bulk of that held in mortgage loans.
Total residential debt surpassed $2 trillion in January, CMHC said on Thursday, up six per cent year-over-year.
Canada’s economy is heavily reliant on the health of the housing market, which Taylor says means any signs of stress in banks’ mortgage books are “something to monitor” if they start to appear.
“It’s probably too soon to say whether it’s going to be a really big issue or not, but it’s definitely one of the reasons the banks were increasing their provisions going into the quarter,” he says.
Booth notes that mortgages are one of the last things Canadians’ tend to default on as they’re willing to make most sacrifices before losing their home and the equity they’ve built up in it, which helps keep rates of mortgage delinquency relatively low in Canada.
From a macro perspective, both Booth and Taylor say there’s not much cause for concern for the banks themselves as they’ve put aside more money for loans going bad.
But on an individual level, Canadians should take the higher loan loss provisions as a sign that they might need to tighten their belts in the months to come.
“While Canadians don’t have to worry about their banks, they do have to worry about whether they can afford higher interest costs and that means that they have to cut back other spending,” Booth says.
Messaging from the Bank of Canada and U.S. Federal Reserve in recent weeks that interest rates might need to remain higher for longer — or even rise further — means that Canadians should plan for an elevated interest rate environment, Taylor says.
One way to do that, he says, is by keeping less money in chequing accounts and putting it in investment vehicles that are showing higher rates of return. Taylor says that’s a solid approach for anyone worried about their finances through an expected period of “turbulence.”
“For Canadian consumers, it’s something that everybody should be looking at to make sure you’re getting the most for your money with higher interest earned on your cash.”
— with files from The Canadian Press, Reuters