A lot has been said about Thursday’s budget announcement. From Flaherty’s shoe selection to a vague job-training program, many Canadian’s were left slightly confused following the much-anticipated announcement.
With that being said, Flaherty’s eighth (and potentially final) budget announcement could have been worse, especially for the mortgage industry. Thursday’s budget included a tightening of controls on mortgage lending once again, as well as another promise to further limit lender access to bulk mortgage insurance. While this will inconvenience some lenders, it’s actually good news for taxpayers. The announcement is just the latest in a long line of moves from the Finance Department that touch on concerns over the housing market. As Canadian’s continue to sink themselves deeper into household debt, Flaherty once again verbalized his mounting anxiety over interest rates.
“Our concern, my concern for a number of years, is with very low interest rates that people can afford their mortgages when interest rates go up,” Flaherty told reporters while purchasing is budget-day shoes, a long-running Canadian tradition, at a Roots factory in Toronto on Wednesday.
The Housing Market Under a Microscope
Flaherty has made a career out of meddling in the in the mortgage market, influencing a number of policy changes in the past decade. And while home sales have slowed significantly and prices are beginning to drop in some of the critical markets since Ottawa’s intervention last summer, Flaherty still feels that more needs to be done to protect consumers from themselves.
As the economy slowly begins to right itself and interest rates eventually begin to rise, economists like Flaherty are worried that current mortgage holders won’t be able to meet their increased mortgage payments. And since Ottawa backstops mortgage insurance, the Canadian taxpayer would be on the hook to cover this exposure.
The Bad Side of Bulk Mortgage Insurance
Mortgage insurance, which is backed up by the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation, is intended to help consumers with low down payments enter the housing market more easily. Unfortunately, over time, it’s also become a tool for banks to manage their risk. Banks’ appetite for bulk mortgage insurance (also referred to as portfolio insurance) has continue to grow over the years. In fact, it’s one of the main factors behind the government-owned CMHC’s growing balance sheet.
You see, whenever a new homeowner purchases a house without the mandatory 20 percent down, the mortgage needs to be insured to protect the lender. However, banks also offer this extended coverage to insure large swaths, or portfolios, of mortgages that don’t necessarily need the protection.
The budget states that, “With the financial crisis well behind us, the government is amending the rules for portfolio insurance to increase market discipline in residential lending and reduce taxpayer exposure to the housing sector.”
Fallout from the budget will include new rules that will gradually limit the sale of insurance on low loan-to-value mortgages (i.e. mortgages where the consumer ponies up a higher down payment) to those that are being used in Ottawa’s securitization program through the CMHC. This will prevent banks from insuring their portfolio mortgage products in order to reduce their capital requirements.
Flaherty’s changes will also enable Ottawa to stop the use of any taxpayer-backed insured mortgages (even the high ratio ones)as collateral in securities that are not sponsored by the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation. This will protect Ottawa’s potential exposure.
Flaherty and the Department of Finance noted that they intend to further consult with the finance industry before implementing this rules later in the year. In the meantime, financial institutions will continue to have access to a broad array of financing options.
As always, we’ll follow this story as it unfolds right here on the Mortgage Talk Canada Blog.