By Don Procter
Will the federal government’s current review of the mortgage stress test (Guideline B-20) result in adjustments to the rules, allowing more consumers into the home buying market – particularly in cities and provinces where housing affordability is not a crisis?
Currently the stress test rules keep renters from buying homes in affordable provinces and cities, such as the prairie and Atlantic provinces and in Quebec, says Paul Taylor, CEO and president of Mortgage Professionals Canada. “They (residents) can find properties they can finance quite affordably but they can’t afford the fictitious rate . . . given the distance between the street rate and the stress test. . .”
Reducing the stress test rules could increase buyer activity, but if the federal government thinks a recession is coming – as a number of economists predict – then don’t count on them making significant stress test adjustments, Taylor says.
MPC has wanted a reduction in stress tests almost since the introduction in 2017. Mortgage insurance premiums are high and stress test qualifications are stringent, Taylor says, noting that individuals must also be “very well capitalized” under the minimum capital tests.
If the overnight rate is calculated at three per cent, which the government says is neutral, then the interest rate for most consumers would be 4.25 to 4.5 per cent for a five-year fixed term, he says. An interest rate at neutral or above neutral means the Bank of Canada is trying to suppress, not stimulate, activity, he says. Consumers should not face stress tests on top of a suppressive interest rate, “or we almost will be doubling down specifically on the real estate sector when trying to slow the economy.”
MPC’s recommendation is a floor of a qualifying rate of 4.5 per cent, he says. If the contract rate is lower, people should prove they can manage it; if higher, they should be able to qualify at the contract rate “because they are already paying a higher than usual interest rate . . .”
Taylor says MPC’s calculation for a stress test that is 75 basis points above contract – the equivalent of a two-per-cent interest rate hike after five years – has garnered little attention from the government. That number was arrived at partly through calculations of an increase in property equity over five years and an increase in owner’s earnings.
MPC also advocates exemptions to Guideline B-20 for mortgage renewals. Some borrowers successfully completing a five-year term can’t move their mortgage to a different lender with lower rates because they don’t qualify under the current stress test rules.
The government is aware that any changes to the insured market must be followed in the uninsured market to avoid “a dislocation in the way the market will work,” Taylor says, pointing out the government is expected to collaborate with all parties, including the Office of the Superintendent of Financial Institutions (OSFI), the Bank of Canada and Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. on any changes to avoid the problem.
Banks have 75 per cent of market
In the CMHC Residential Mortgage Industry Dashboard released last fall, 75 per cent of outstanding mortgages were held by the banks and 0.23 per cent of those mortgages were delinquent. Taylor expects a “small percentage erosion” in the bank mortgages because of regulatory qualifications, while non-bank lenders could pick up that slack.
Credit unions and caisses populaires held 14 per cent of home mortgages, according to the CMHC report, and only had a delinquency rate of 0.16 per cent. While credit unions, (provincially regulated) are not required by law to adhere to the stress test, many boards have voted to voluntarily comply anyway, Taylor says. Meanwhile, credit union boards with laxer underwriting rules will still have to show prudence in managing depositors’ money.
The CMHC report indicates that mortgage finance companies held six per cent of the market, with a delinquency rate of 0.26 per cent rate. Mortgage investment corporations (MICs) and private lenders, meanwhile, held only one per cent of the market, with a delinquency rate of 1.92 per cent. But this sector is increasing at about 10 per cent a year versus only two per cent annual growth from other lender sectors, says Tania Bourassa-Ochoa, senior housing research specialist, CMHC.
Bourassa-Ochoa says most MICs concentrate in large metropolitan areas such as Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal.
While MICs have high interest rates, they are still “probably significantly lower” than rates negotiated with banks for unsecured lines, says Taylor. “They are performing a service that the marketplace really quite desperately needs . . . considering the contraction of credit availability of stress tests and such.”
MPC advocates the reintroduction of an insurance-eligible 30-year amortization period for first-time buyers. Taylor says it would be more effective than the first-time homebuyers incentive plan in place now, which is a shared equity mortgage funded by the feds, he says.
Taylor notes that precluding people from taking on the debt of home mortgages doesn’t stop them from building other debt loads through credit cards, which have higher interest rates.
Bourassa-Ochoa says uninsured mortgages are growing faster than insured mortgages.
According to Equifax data, which covers about 80 per cent of outstanding mortgages, there are about 8.162 million mortgage holders in Canada, Bourassa-Ochoa says.
Taylor says the MPC agrees with many policy points in federal housing and CMHC strategies. Increasing purpose-built rental in hot markets such as Toronto and Vancouver will take the pressure off condominium markets to address rental demand. Purpose-built rental will also provide more security of tenancy than condominium rentals does. “It could start to ease (condo) pricing because there is lower investor demand. . .”
The MPC also supports as-of-right zoning around transit hubs such as subway stations to prevent local residents from vetoing increased densification or nodal developments. While at times property owners have legitimate concerns about developments negatively affecting their property values, NIMBYism can have a negative effect on healthy growth in cities like Toronto and Vancouver that need more affordable housing, he says.