Is Canada’s Housing Bubble ‘Different’?

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Nothing to Fear, They Say

According to this article, CIBC thinks the huge amount of household debt in Canada and the beginning cracks in the housing bubble are nothing to worry about. The main reason for this benign assessment seems to be that there have been a few other credit and real estate bubbles in the world that have grown even bigger than the US one before it burst. What a relief.

„The news out of Canada's real estate market isn't good, but the country will avoid a U.S.-style real estate meltdown, CIBC said Tuesday.

Economist Benjamin Tal said in a report that even recently released data about high levels of Canadian consumer debt isn't proof that there will be a sudden, big drop in home prices.

"To be sure, house prices in Canada will probably fall in the coming year or two, but any comparison to the American market of 2006 reflects deep misunderstanding of the credit landscapes of the pre-crash environment in the U.S. and today's Canadian market," he wrote.

Tal noted that Canada's debt-to-income ratio has just broken the U.S. record set in 2006, but said other countries have had even higher levels without a crash.

[…]

Tal said home prices in large cities like Vancouver and Toronto are overshooting their fundamentals and will likely slip as sales fall.

"But the Canada of today is very different than a pre-recession U.S., namely as far as borrower profiles are concerned," he wrote.

"Therefore, when it comes to jitters regarding a U.S.-type meltdown here at home, the only thing we have to fear is fear itself."

(emphasis added)

To sum this up: there have been bigger bubbles, so ours can grow bigger too. Moreover, it is different this time.

It is actually fairly typical to find this type of thinking near the top of a bubble. The people living inside it cannot believe that it could possibly crash. Of course Canada's economic situation is in many respects 'different' from the US economic situation, but that is the case with every slice of economic history. Not one of them can possibly be exactly the same. Nevertheless, one can come to some general conclusions about credit expansion-induced bubbles. Economic laws will be operative whether or not the precise historical circumstances are similar. When Japan reached the height of its bubble in the late 1980's, it was also widely argued that the overvaluation of stocks and real estate was no reason to worry because Japan was allegedly 'different'.

Regarding borrower profiles, Mr. Tal is mistaken if he thinks that the current  profiles of borrowers are actually relevant. These profiles always look good at the height of a boom. They deteriorate only after the boom ends. To wit, here is a chart of the history of US household credit scores:

US credit scores 2005 to 2010

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