Canada

The Bank of Canada Is Full of S**t, Here’s How Interest Rates Impact Speculation

The Bank of Canada Is Full of S**t, Here's How Interest Rates Impact Speculation

Despite the known correlation between interest rates and speculation, Stephen Poloz, head of Bank of Canada (BoC), maintains they aren’t related. In an interview last week, he boldly claimed “I don’t think even a five percentage point difference would take you away from [speculation].” Most people didn’t catch a keyword in that statement, think. As in he didn’t actually do the math. Rather than leave that thought as a mystery for the ages, we crunched some numbers to show you what the likely impact of a 5% rate hike would look like. So here’s what we know about interest rates, their correlation to speculation, and the impact of raising rates.

Investors Vs. Speculators

First off, the difference between a speculator and an investor needs to be made clear. A real estate investor is someone that purchases real estate, improves it in some way, and a couple of decades down the line sells it (ideally for a profit). If it’s a second home, they would rent it out, and focus on maintaining sustainable cash flow to improve their returns. An investor is often playing with their own money, borrows conservatively, and mitigates risk as well as possible. Markets don’t have to worry too much about these people, because they’re in it for the long run.

A real estate speculator is someone that purchases a house (or two or three), because they have a feeling there’s going to be a sudden surge. They flock to where they believe qualified buyers are, because they need someone to buy their speculative investment. They don’t rent it out, because they need to liquidate it whenever they find a “peak,” or if the market turns South. Some speculators I know couldn’t even tell you where their property is located, it’s just a piece of paper they plan on trading. They often operate on leverage, and the ability to borrow cheap money is crucial to their operation. The money needs to be cheap enough that returns will easily eclipse the cost of borrowing.

The Low Interest Gold Rush

Low interest rates created a larger pool of qualified borrowers than ever previously existed. Interest rates impact mortgage rates, which directly impacted the size of mortgages Canadians could take out. If the cost of borrowing is high, you can’t afford to borrow quite as much. The reverse is also true, if the cost of borrowing is cheap – you can “afford” to borrow more. Since we’re at historically low rates, there’s more “qualified” borrowers than ever. New buyers were all of a sudden prey for speculators.

Canadian Real Estate Prices Vs. Median Mortgage

The median mortgage was determined by using the median household income, and the average mortgage rate as determined by the Bank of Canada. Home prices were an average of 9% higher than the maximum mortgage rate, which is an attainable downpayment.

Speculators Get Access To Cheap Money

This cheap money isn’t just available to buyers, it’s also available to speculators. When the cost of credit fell to almost nil, buying real estate became the equivalent of getting a low cost call option on a property’s future. If that was too finance-y, it means you’re betting real estate will appreciate faster than the cost of borrowing. Which is a pretty good bet, because it has to appreciate just a touch over inflation to profit. Beats the heck out of a 10 year Government of Canada bond, which was a little safer, but pays less than inflation.

It was almost stupid to not buy property at these rates, since it was almost free money. This didn’t just give speculators more capital, it created speculators out of people that would normally not be able to play the game. These aren’t Bay Street suits with wads of cash. Everyone from your barber to grocery store clerks are turning into real estate speculators. Cheap rates, a larger qualified buyer pool, and the expectation that you can always make money, turned shelter into lottery tickets.

Historic Interest Rates and Real Estate Prices

There’s a pretty clear correlation between home prices, and the qualifying mortgage amount people can borrow. From 2005 to 2013 home prices rose 48%, and the amount the median household could borrow increased by 54%. In Toronto prices rose 50%, and the amount the median Toronto household could borrow increased 53% during the same period. In Vancouver, a 41% rise in home prices was met with a 41% increase in borrowing amount during the same period. If it’s not related, it’s a hell of a coincidence that home prices rose at a similar rate to the amount Canadians could borrow.

Toronto Real Estate Prices Vs. Median Mortgage

Toronto real estate maintained a fairly consistent buffer until 2013. This is when Equifax’s mortgage fraud flags increased by 52%.

I only used the comparison to 2013, because that’s where things get murky. Interest rates still went down, increasing the size of mortgage people can carry. However, prices disconnected from borrowing rates. This was the year Equifax saw a 52% surge in flags for mortgage fraud. Toronto became so synonymous with mortgage fraud, Americans now call inflating your income for a mortgage a “Brampton loan.” Brampton, for those that don’t know, is a Toronto suburb that’s being called out for entertaining dodgy mortgage practices. People like US short-seller Marc Cohodes have been warning Canadian regulators about this for years.

An Equifax survey in 2016 also found Canadians are becoming comfortable with mortgage fraud. 13% of survey respondents said it was okay to lie on a mortgage application. As rates continue down, even adding the risk of being caught for mortgage fraud leaves speculation attractive. These people that would not have otherwise been incentivized to buy a home, added fuel to the fire—accelerating prices.

Modeling A 5% Rate Hike

The Province of Ontario’s financial watchdog thinks that a one percent hike per year is a safe climb, so let’s use that number. I’m also an optimistic person, so let’s assume the median income increases at the target rate of inflation – even though last week’s stats show we’re falling behind. If mortgage rates continue to be an average of 2.37% higher than interest rates, households will see a 33% reduction in borrowing power.

Toronto Real Estate Prices Vs. Median Mortgage With Rate Hike

Projected numbers use a 1% rate hike per year, adding 5% over a period of 5 years. This might seem aggressive, but the Financial Accountability Office of Ontario is modeling for a similar hike, and considers it safe. Projections are in 2017 dollars for simplicity, but the sticker price of homes likely would adjust to inflation/deflation.

Since borrowing power propelled prices forward, the opposite would be likely as well. This means home prices would fall around 30%. That is, if there isn’t a massive devaluation of currency, and they commit to cracking down on fraud.

Speculation has to do with incentive, and risk. Lowering rates increases the amount of qualified buyers (a.k.a. demand), and lowers the risk associated with investing. If there’s little risk, and a flood of demand, prices will move higher. Increasing rates presents significant risks, and lowers the number of qualified buyers. This would likely result in more incentive for investors to return to safer plays like fixed income investing, such as bonds.

Now whether or not he should raise rates is a different story. The BoC could easily cool the market by increasing interest rates, but that’s not their mandated job. They’re an independent body created to ensure that antiquated measures of inflation are kept on target. They’ve never had to “cool” housing markets before, they are literally there to ensure they can keep CPI between two target rates, and nothing else. However, don’t say you “don’t think” an interest rate hike will impact the market, because that’s not true.

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Photo: Daryl Mitchell.

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16 Comments

  • Reply
    Bay Street Guy 1 month ago

    Rate cuts by definition are made to spur cheap credit, and “investors.” Saying otherwise is clearly a lie.

    The reason we have so many people speculating on housing is there’s not a whole lot else in Canada. We’re an economy based on commodities, and since global commodity prices have been lowered – we needed to make a new commodity.

    • Reply
      Dave Calhoud 1 month ago

      But what about the tech jobs? …baahhaahahahaa. Most people don’t realize tech companies set up one person offices up here because it lowers taxes. The US doesn’t allow offshoring, Canada does. It allows them to legally offshore non-US revenues. Hilarious that people think they’re coming here to utilize our talent.

      There’s probably a reason why Uber of the Netherlands does Canadian Uber payments, and not Uber of California.

    • Reply
      The Real Tonoy 1 month ago

      What you say is mostly true as one of the biggest reasons was and is the stock market. The stock market has seemingly become 100 percent rigged since the dead cat bounce back in 2009. Also gold and silver have also become rigged. Presently the stock market is the most overvalued in history, accounting changes such as mark to market and the like, throwing bad stocks out of the DOW and putting in good ones to skew the indexes to brainwash the public never worked as no one except the FED and the bankers bought stocks. Share buybacks will be the cause of the greatest stock market crash in history in America as paying 4 to 5 times what a share is worth means big loses and insolventcy… chapter 11. With no alternate investments the feeble Millennials in the GTA and the Vancouver area copied the Chinese. Great on the way up by like all ponzi’s 95 percent of the ponzi holders lose on the way down.

  • Reply
    Trader Jim 1 month ago

    We all collectively let out a laugh at my office when Poloz said he didn’t know if rate hikes would stop speculators. The only reason we don’t hike rates are the federal government needs low rates to keep the ponzi going.

  • Reply
    Mike D. 1 month ago

    Most people aren’t aware that foreign buyers (which are likely gone), are also here because of low rates. In China, you would pay 2x the amount of interest on a mortgage as Canada. So it most definitely “would be stupid” to not buy property.

    Our government is backing massive loans, and have convinced people owning a home is a right in this country. Wealthy speculators know we’re brainwashed into “buying” instead of renting, and this is why people are speculating so much. They know Canadians are easy targets.

  • Reply
    Lily 1 month ago

    It would have been less upsetting if last week Poloz just said “don’t give a crap, not my job.” At least he wouldn’t have misled so many Canadians that don’t understand these things. It’s going to be really difficult for Canadians to “unlearn” that Bank of Canada has nothing to do with speculative cashflow.

  • Reply
    Paul 1 month ago

    I can’t believe he’s saying this crap. He said in Maclean’s ” when you’re borrowing money to buy a house and you think you’re going to make 20 per cent over the next year, I don’t think it’s going to make a difference if the interest rate you’re paying is 2 per cent, 4 per cent or 6 per cent,”

    Except that directly impacts the amount of credit people have access too, and most people can’t afford a house at higher prices when rates move up. People think a mortgage is an aspect of their wealth.

    http://www.macleans.ca/economy/economicanalysis/the-bank-of-canadas-muddled-message-on-house-prices/

  • Reply
    Hunter Watt 1 month ago

    Everyone have made interesting point, all from different perspectives which shows how complex the interest rate subject is and how it impact everyone differently. On the specific subject of real-estate speculator, as a Mortgage Broker and working in house at a very busy Real-Estate office I am seeing first had the droves of speculators lining up to buy new home projects. When signing up for these homes, they put their cash deposits down and it is clear they have no intentions on closing. One of their first questions is can they assign their deal a and when they are told there will be between large fee, some times as high as 2% for each assignment, they protest but they still sign up. If a large fee like that right, up front isn’t slowing the speculation then why would a interest rate hike work? The speculators are not closing on these homes and are not taking out mortgages so interest rates have little to no affect on their business. There would’d be a large speculation market if there wasn’t a market for these homes, there just are not enough homes for to meet the demand. This is true for new build, resale and rentals.

    • Reply
      Jeffery 1 month ago

      Doesn’t an increase in interest rates qualify your clients for less capital? At the very least, it makes it harder for them to unload since it would technically reduce the number of people that can afford a home.

      A large part of speculation is liquidity. Reducing the number of buyers means there’s a greater amount of risk, and would send them back to Beanie Babies or tech stocks or whatever the heck is the next speculative bubble.

  • Reply
    Michael 1 month ago

    Speculation only really applies to new builds and is a very small part of the equation.

    • Reply
      The Real Tonoy 1 month ago

      The way it works is the local Chinese get into bidding wars while on the phone relaying all the information back to China and Beijing as the seed money is all coming in from abroad. The local Chinese get paid to buy residential real estate for the foreign Chinese. This is on ALL residential real estate not just new or newer.

  • Reply
    Em 1 month ago

    I just finished a post-grad research analyst and statistical analysis degree and want to parrot my stats prof by declaring favourite phrase, “correlation does not imply causation”. That is all.

    • Reply
      The Wrath of Quant 1 month ago

      Sweet, except capital flow is the basis for all speculation. Lower interest rates mean more capital. Did you think rates were lowered because it’s cuter to have smaller numbers? The primary reason rates are lowered is to stimulate the economy. They want people to borrow for more expensive homes, cars, etc.. It’s a joke to assume the opposite isn’t true.

      The part that’s missing for a stats major is market mechanics. I’m a quant, so my work is literally half stats, half economics. This is a well understood trend, and Goldman Sachs just released a research note that was pretty close in conclusion about the rising rates and real estate prices in the US.

      Mark my words, a major bank is going to release this exact note in 4 weeks. Then everyone will gasp, and accept it.

  • Reply
    The Real Tonoy 1 month ago

    Poloz trying not to lose face knowing full well the two rates cuts in 2015 he was responsible for was one of the primary reasons for the housing bubble the last two years. Poloz brushed aside interest rates like they didn’t relate to the problem in any aspect or respect.

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