Canadian household debt growth slowing

OTTAWA — Canadians may be starting to get the message about the perils of mounting debt, suggests a new report from CIBC.

OTTAWA — Canadians may be starting to get the message about the perils of mounting debt, suggests a new report from CIBC.

A new analysis by the CIBC shows that many measures of household debt moderated in the third quarter of 2010, just as the often-quoted indicator of debt-to-disposable income hit a record 148 per cent.

The paper says that alarming number was due to falling incomes in the July-September compared with the April-June quarter — when Canadians were getting juicy tax refund cheques from Ottawa — not because debt levels were rising.

In fact, behind the scenes, credit growth was already falling.

Household debt in the third quarter grew at the slowest pace in nine years, while in the last month for which there is data — October 2010 — it was the softest in 15 years.

As well, lines of credit are now rising at a monthly clip of 0.3 per cent, the slowest pace since 2007.

While the mortgage market expanded by seven per cent year-over-year — still faster than income growth — mortgage debt was a small portion of household assets, a function of improved stock market portfolios and better home values.

“I’m not saying debt is not a problem. What I am saying is the problem is getting smaller,” said economist Benjamin Tal, author of the CIBC report.

“Everybody is assuming debt is rising like crazy, but the reality is that if you look closely you see that the rate at which debt is accumulating is going down notably. We should not get panicky because it seems the system is starting to correct itself.”

The Bank of Canada and the federal government have been warning Canadians about their debt exposure for well over a year.

But the hectoring picked up in recent months after the debt-to-income ratio rose to a record high in the third quarter, even beating out the U.S. indebtedness ratio.

In mid-January, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty announced new measures to rein in borrowing, including reducing the amortization period on mortgages from 35 to 30 years, limiting the size of home-equity loans and removing government insurance on lines of credit secured on homes.

Responding to the report at an event in Oshawa, Ont., Flaherty said he acted because he was seeing some “excesses” in borrowing and was concerned a minority of homeowners would not be able to make their monthly payments once interest rates start rising.

“Moderation is the key,” Flaherty said.

Tal said Canadians got the “message” from the warnings of policy makers, but also that there was a natural exhaustion with borrowing.

Other economists, including Scotiabank’s Derek Holt, have also talked about the Canadian consumer entering a new phase in which pent-up demand, particularly for housing, has been exhausted.

“They chose an almost surgical approach where it hits where it hurts without causing too many side effects,” Tal said. “They targeted marginal borrowing … they will not derail the housing market.”

The latest downward trend on credit will take some pressure off Bank of Canada governor Mark Carney to raise interest rates to keep Canadians from loading on too much debt.

Economists are divided as to when Carney will move off the super-low one per cent policy rate.

Some argue that uncertainty over the recovery, risks in the global economy and fear about stoking the dollar — more that debt levels — may be more decisive in convincing Carney to stay on the sidelines until at least the third quarter.

Tal believes the move will come early, possibly in May. He said while the central bank’s 2.4 per cent growth forecast for 2011 is modest, the composition of that expansion is superior to what occurred last year.

Last year’s recovery was bolstered by consumer borrowing and government stimulus, he said, while future growth will be anchored by “a vibrant business sector.”

Tal said he does not believe higher rates, when they come, will cause a major panic among borrowers or disruption in the economy.

He notes that personal bankruptcies are already on the way down, and that all expectations are that Carney will be raising rates in a slow, measured way, rather than in large increments.

“The overall speed and magnitude of future rate hikes will be limited by the growing effectiveness of monetary policy and a modest recovery,” he said.