Seemingly the only variable that will dampen Canadian Real Estate

I’ve written a lot about this in the past, but Canadian real estate in urban centers is simply about too much capital chasing too little yield. Financially it makes sense to borrow at 2.83% like REITs such as Rio-Can (unsecured debt!!) and turn it around and invest it in a real estate yield product at 5.8% and pocket the difference in income.

This only becomes dangerous when credit markets start shutting down and you’re facing a cascade of debt maturities, or the collateral backing your loans (in this case, real estate) has a material mark-to-market drop (and then your debt leverage ratios will go out of whack and nobody will want to lend you money).

So I will bring your attention to interest rates. I’m fairly convinced at this point that until interest rates start rising (or we start seeing provincial governments enact serious foreign capital restrictions that can’t be easily bypassed like it is in British Columbia) we are not going to see any collapse in real estate pricing in Canada.

However, the US Federal Reserve is going to start to rise all boats fairly soon, and this will likely have knock-off effects in the rest of the world, including Canada.

I’m looking at Canadian interest rates at the Bank of Canada, and notice those longer term yields start to creep up again – 5-year government bond rates are at 1.23% and the trend on yields are seemingly upwards.

It remains to be seen whether this is white noise or whether this is the start of a trend, but it is something worth watching. If interest rates normalize to something resembling historical standards (e.g. 2% higher than present levels), Vancouver residential real estate that is currently renting for a 3% cap rate would be selling for a 5% cap rate – the result would be a 40% drop in price. This is not a prediction, it would be financial reality if a 2% rate increase occurred. Leverage has gotten to the point where such a change in interest rates would cause significant financial dislocation and this is likely why central banks are very afraid to make sudden changes to short term rates.

Mortgage insurance concerns

The provincial government in British Columbia is trying to balance the politics of housing prices in the Greater Vancouver Regional District and the fact that housing and housing-related economic activity is our #1 source of economic activity.

The government knows that if they take policy decisions to snuff out the fire that is currently raging in real estate that they will collapse the economy into recession – our other industries (mining, forestry, oil and gas) have been withering away and this leaves real estate as our number one export.

Managing a “controlled landing” will be an interesting feat. I’m not sure whether the government can do it, but we will see!

CMHC released a report (July 27, 2016) confirming something almost anybody on the ground here knows: in real estate, there is “strong” evidence of problematic conditions in the Vancouver and Toronto regions of Canada.

This has implications for mortgage insurance. While rising prices is great for mortgage insurance (i.e. there is a much lessened chance for mortgage defaults), the residual concern is one of regression to the mean – if insurers write policies for people taking mortgages at the peak of pricing, insurers will have a considerable amount of downside exposure in the event there is a deep decrease in real estate pricing.

The last time that real estate prices fell for any significant period of time in the region was back in the early 1980’s:

June-2016-REBGV-Stats-1977-to-June-2016-Price-Chart-for-Vancouver

Interest rates at that time were in the double digits. Real estate from the beginning of 1981 to the end of 1982 dropped by about 40%, but you would never detect it by looking at the chart above – this is why stock charts use a y-axis that is logarithmic scaled, not linear like the one you see above.

Misconceptions on Canadian mortgages

There have been quite a few media articles about how the recent rule changes has kneecapped the Canadian real estate market. It should be pointed out that these rule changes were strictly in the context of having CMHC (a federal crown corporation, so if they fail, then the public picks up the bill) insure such mortgages.

It does not include private lenders or insurers (such as Genworth (TSX: MIC)). So private lenders and insurers are free to make bone-headed decisions, such as providing zero-down financing and prime minus 1% rates to 450-rated credits if they deem it to be in their best interests.

Since the major chartered banks are really only interested in arbitraging their mortgage portfolio risk by getting CMHC to pick up the downside, they have been much more reluctant to give mortgages outside of the 25-year amortization, 5% down payment guidelines. The two major private lenders in the Canadian market are Equitable Group (TSX: ETC) and Home Capital Group (TSX: HCG) which have to make their own decisions with respect to giving out mortgages.

The share prices of both of these companies should be leading indicators with respect to the Canadian real estate market as a whole. The analogies in the USA, such as Novastar Financial, have long since gone insolvent for well-documented reasons. The semi-equivalent of CMHC, Freddic Mac and Fannie Mae are still publicly traded, but will not likely be returning capital to shareholders ever unless if the US government decides to make their obligations disappear.

I would be cautious of the Canadian private lenders without trying to thoroughly examining their loan portfolios. Doing this is not an easy job, even on the inside. They are producing disproportionately large earnings per share strictly through the usage of leverage, which in itself is not a bad thing, but you don’t know how secure those assets are. In the case of Equitable, one sees a company that has about $10 billion in mortgages outstanding, about $5.3 billion of it has been securitized (wrapping them up in happy packages, insuring them, and then selling to market) – the only problem of the securitized assets is that your net interest margins on them are piddling low – 0.49% in the last quarter, compared to the very relevant 2% more you get with the non-securitized assets.

ETC’s book value per common share is $27.46 (at June 30, 2012) and is currently trading at $31.49, so there is a premium assigned to their operations.

As long as interest rates remain low, Canadian real estate should remain flat

Interesting articles on the Globe and Mail (link 1, link 2) from TD and Scotia regarding house prices.

I tend to agree with the general projections that prices will probably compress around 10-15% in the medium term, but there will not be a precipitous crash in the real estate market.

I will give one strong condition to this, however: interest rates must remain at suppressed levels.

Note the following chart (of Vancouver real estate prices):

A parenthetical note is that this chart should be using a logarithmic y-axis as a linear graph distorts relative price movement at higher levels – this is why you never see stock charts scaled on a linear fashion.

Vancouver detached properties are still ridiculously overpriced (and will be a likely exception to the 10-15% rule simply due to the abatement of the well-known foreign capital influx), but I will bring your attention to the chart between 1994 and 2001, where minimal growth was seen in prices in all relevant markets.

It is likely that we’ll see such meandering for the next few years, providing that interest rates remain low.

Real estate has an embedded cash conversion feature – you can rent it out for cash. The value of this rent is higher during low interest rate periods (simply because you can’t sell the real estate asset and invest that cash into risk-free bonds) and lower during high interest rate periods. On a more retail level, if you are spending $2,500 per month to rent a home in Richmond, BC, you will need to earn $30,000 in after-tax dollars to pay for that rental. This is about $35,000 pre-tax after income taxes and statutory deductions. Add in regular living expenses and the like, and a $30,000 after-tax commitment translates into about $42,000 pre-tax earnings for that rental expense (assuming a 30% marginal rate for the middle income bracket in BC).

The equivalent of that $42,000 pre-tax expense is about $1.4 million at a 3% return, $1.05 million at 4%, or $840,000 at 5%. Your risk-free rate on a 10-year Canadian government bond presently is 1.9%.

Note this calculation does not factor in carrying costs (taxes, maintenance, etc.), but is designed to illustrate changes in theoretical valuation between certain interest rates.

In context of equivalent yields and real estate values, one can easily rationalize how in the rest of the country except for some very heated markets (Richmond, Point Grey in Vancouver, etc.) that valuations are where they should be, given the interest rate environment.

People concerned about a change in interest rates that don’t want to go through the hassle of selling their properties have a very simple financial option to hedge themselves against interest rate risk: sell treasury bond futures.

Mortgage rates in Canada

It is making the airwaves that the Bank of Montreal is offering a 5-year fixed rate mortgage at a 2.99% APR rate. There are slightly less favourable conditions attached to such a mortgage (lower prepayments throughout the mortgage), but otherwise this is the lowest 5-year fixed rate ever offered.

With the risk-free 5-year government bond rate at 1.3%, the bank is still making money from the loan. I’m guessing the only people qualifying for such a mortgage would be those that have very good credit ratings and those purchasing homes with reasonable leverage (e.g. 25% down payment or above).

Interestingly enough, since most financial institutions have raised rates on their variable rate mortgages – (last year there were offerings that went as low as prime minus 0.9%, or 2.1% with existing interest rates, while today you will be lucky to receive prime minus 0.25%), it makes the fixed rate offer a significantly superior option. Although I do not believe short term rates are going anywhere in 2012, it is difficult to fathom that short term rates will still remain at the levels they are through the duration of a five year term.

This is yet another function of the low interest rate environment where people are encouraged to financially leverage on cheap credit. At 3%, why not spend the extra $100,000 on those granite counters? That’s only $250/month extra…

The argument that low interest rates increase asset prices is a simple mathematical argument, but the real estate market in the USA, where interest rates are equivalently low for long-duration mortgages, is proving that rates alone are not a sufficient explanation for asset values.

Links and after-tax calculations

I will preface this post by thanking Mark Goodfield at the Blunt Bean Counter for mentioning this site. I am quite happy to link to high-quality writers of Canadian finance that use their real names, and Mark has been on my very small list of site authors on the right-hand side underneath the “Canadian Finance” header.

In particular, I found his off-topic post about golfing at Pebble Beach to be highly entertaining. Since I am one of the world’s worst golfers, I can only live through the experience through other people and I note in sympathy of him having to be stuck in a foursome with an incapable golfer at Spanish Bay.

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My topic on taxation deals with the statement of before-tax and after-tax amounts. Taxation must be factored into all financial calculations (despite how much we dislike paying them), but most people intuitively think in terms of before-tax rather than after-tax amounts.

Here is an example: If you were given a choice of having $100,000 cash in a non-registered account or $120,000 in an RRSP account, which would you take?

Most people would take the $120,000 RRSP account.

However, the answer is not so clear. For example, if you decided to take the RRSP account and pulled it all out in one year, assuming no other income and a BC residence in 2011, you would be left with $86,425 in after-tax money to deal with.

If you split your withdrawals into two $60,000 batches, assuming the 2011 rates apply for 2012, you would still be left with $96,366 after-tax. Structured over three years would leave you with $102,043.

That said, if your goal is to invest the capital and generate income over a long period of time, it is far superior to do it through an RRSP than a non-registered account, where in the latter your returns will be whittled away by having to pay the CRA each year. With the RRSP, you would have a larger capital base to deal with and also the advantage of tax deferral.

However, if your primary method is to increase your wealth through capital gains, there are multiple scenarios where doing it through a non-registered account is superior to an RRSP – especially if your holding periods on your assets are of very long duration. For example, if you chose well and invested in something that returned 10% a year for 20 years (note this is exceptionally difficult to do!), spontaneously liquidated at the end of 20 years, you would have $566,733 at the end of the day. In the RRSP account, after withdrawal, you would have $473,639 after-tax.

Also note that if the investment is determined to be grossly over-valued at a point in time, that the penalty of “spontaneous liquidation” in an RRSP is zero, while the tax liability in a non-registered account increases as the value of the investment increases – there is a significant penalty for realizing a capital gain and an investor has to factor this into their calculations (which I did on this post). I find it personally very frustrating to hold onto investments that have appreciated beyond what I consider to be its fair value, but “prevented” from doing so because of the capital gains taxes that would be incurred as a result.

Financial modelling of the RRSP vs. non-registered scenario as I outlined above is not a trivial issue to answer. The specific variables involved include (but certainly are not limited to):
a. When you need money out of your RRSP (a function of age and personal situation with respect to financial needs);
b. Your tax situation for the next X years (including how the government will change rates over that period of time, how much other income you will generate during that time);
c. Your method of investment (as it impacts how taxes are applied, expectations of future returns).

One other component of before-tax and after-tax calculations concerns the implied rent in a rent-vs-own scenario in a real estate purchase. For an individual, a rent payment comes from after-tax funds, which means that if your rent payment is $10,000/year, the before-tax income required to generate such a rent payment, using a 30% marginal rate, would be $14,286 before-tax.

Assuming a GIC returns 10%, one would intuitively think that they would be indifferent if they invested $100,000 in a residential property vs. the GIC (note this excludes all other costs, such as maintenance, insurance, property taxes, etc.) since the “return on investment” is $10,000/year. However, either the GIC rate must be translated into the 7% after-tax figure ($10,000*10%*(1-0.3)), or the after-tax rental amount must be translated into the $14,286 pre-tax figure ($10,000/(1-0.3)).

It is important when doing these financial calculations that all figures are translated into either before-tax or after-tax numbers, otherwise there will be significant errors in comparative calculations.

Fixed rate mortgage rates will drop

Attached is a 1-year chart of the 5-year government benchmark bond yield:

5-Year Canadian Government Bond Yield

With a yield of 1.41%, this is the lowest the 5-year yield has been for decades. The lowest reached during the last economic crisis (January 14, 2009) was 1.54%.

The quick implication is that the 5-year fixed mortgage rate will likely drop. Although we are completely bathed in the midst of a European financial crisis (causing collateral damage domestically, just as the US economic crisis caused damage in Canada), banks are apparently solvent.

What will be an interesting question is whether this recent crush in the markets will cause a decrease in real estate prices or whether prices will continue to remain strong, especially in the Vancouver area. Real estate, gold, and government treasuries are three asset classes that have managed to hold value, while everything else has been dumped. If real estate prices are compressing then banks may tighten credit requirements (e.g. higher down payment, higher rate, etc.)

Tightening the screws on housing market credit

The Government of Canada came out with an incremental announcement regarding the policies surrounding mortgage credit:

Specifically, the following provisions will be enacted immediately:

* Reduce the maximum amortization period to 30 years from 35 years for new government-backed insured mortgages with loan-to-value ratios of more than 80 per cent. This will significantly reduce the total interest payments Canadian families make on their mortgages, allow Canadian families to build up equity in their homes more quickly, and help Canadians pay off their mortgages before they retire.

Notably, this does not prevent people putting 20% down from getting a 35-year amortization mortgage; it does prevent people putting less than 20% down from getting a 35-year amortization mortgage. This change will only impact those mortgages where mortgage insurance is required.

On March 18, 2011 the following will come into force:

* Lower the maximum amount Canadians can borrow in refinancing their mortgages to 85 per cent from 90 per cent of the value of their homes. This will promote saving through home ownership and limit the repackaging of consumer debt into mortgages guaranteed by taxpayers.

This lessens the amount, slightly, of the home equity people can withdraw in a second-line mortgage.

On April 18, 2011 the following will come into force:

* Withdraw government insurance backing on lines of credit secured by homes, such as home equity lines of credit, or HELOCs. This will ensure that risks associated with consumer debt products used to borrow funds unrelated to house purchases are managed by the financial institutions and not borne by taxpayers.

This is probably the most important of changes – second-line mortgages will no longer have the public guaranteeing the loan value via CMHC.

Clearly the government is worried about CMHC guaranteeing mortgages that will eventually default. My opinion is that the government should not be in the market of guaranteeing mortgages at all – this is precisely why we have a financial industry, which can appropriately price the risk. If they cannot price the risk properly, they should either get out of the business or go bankrupt.

Cracking the real estate agent market

(Link to news story: MLS real estate deal ‘may force out agents’)

About thirty years ago, the stock trading business was cracked open when brokers could charge whatever commissions they wanted – the eventual result of this was automated stock trading and dirt-cheap commissions. A trade in the old days could cost $100 (and that was in 1970’s dollars), while today you can get them done for a dollar.

Essentially, the full-service broker was supposed to provide “value” in their advice to buy or sell securities, but there was an embedded conflict of interest – the broker made money by performing transactions, as opposed to giving good advice. Discount brokerages alleviate this problem by allowing individuals to make their own trading decisions.

The same trend toward discounting will happen to real estate transactions. Currently a typical commission scheme is 8% for the first $100,000 and 2% thereafter; so a transaction on a $500,000 place could be around $16,000 or 3.2% of total transaction price. Suffice to say, this is a huge liquidity penalty (not even including the property transfer tax in BC).

What value does a real estate agent provide? It is one of being a liquidity provider – trying to find somebody to purchase your property. They also provide some supplementary paperwork (mainly copied from templates), but you still have to engage in a lawyer and/or notary to get some other paperwork done to close the transaction.

It is debatable how much “marketing value” is provided by an agent, but what is clear is that real estate transactions are likely to become cheaper as service components become separated. Also, people that can actively shop their property around will likely be able to save significant amounts of money.

Reducing property transaction costs will strongly help to increase liquidity in the real estate marketplace, which would also increase the accuracy of valuation.

One of the primary reasons why I do not dabble in real estate is simply due to the lack of liquidity and the transaction costs. I’d much rather prefer to invest in companies that specialize in real estate since they are likely to have better skills in property management than I ever would.

Real Estate asset bubbles

David Merkel writes the following about financial asset bubbles:

If they want to get a little more complex, I would tell them this: when a boom begins, typically the assets in question are fairly valued, and are reasonably financed. There is also positive cash flow from buying the asset and financing it ordinarily. But as the boom progresses, it becomes harder to get positive cash flow from buying the asset and financing it, because the asset price has risen. At this point, a compromise is made. The buyer of the asset will use more debt and less equity, and/or, he will shorten the terms of the lending, buying a long-term asset, but financing it short-term.

Near the end of the boom, there is no positive short-term cash flow to be found, and the continuing rise in asset prices has momentum. Some economic players become willing to buy the asset in question at prices so high that they suffer negative cash flow. They must feed the asset in order to hold it.

It is at that point that bubbles typically pop, because the resources necessary to finance the bubble exceed the cash flows that the assets can generate. And so I would say to the new office studying systemic risk that they should look for situations where people are relying on capital gains in order to make money. Anytime an arbitrage goes negative, it is a red flag.

I couldn’t help but read this and think to myself: This can apply to Vancouver real estate.

When the boom begins, the assets are fairly valued – you could say the same thing about the Vancouver Real Estate market around year 2000 – your average detached home was around $375,000; townhouse $250,000; condo $190,000. Some properties you could purchase and rent out and still have a cash flow positive proposition.

And then… “Near the end of the boom, there is no positive short-term cash flow to be found, and the continuing rise in asset prices has momentum. Some economic players become willing to buy the asset in question at prices so high that they suffer negative cash flow. They must feed the asset in order to hold it.

This is exactly what is happening to real estate in Vancouver today – people buying properties are purchasing them not for cash generation purposes, but for an implicit increase in asset value, hoping to dump it off to the next sucker for a higher price. The carrying costs of property are higher than the cash flows you can derive from them.

It is just a matter of time before asset prices adjust to a value defined by financial return. Timing when this may occur is very difficult. For myself, I have under-estimated the resiliency of the marketplace – there were many times that I thought things had “peaked”. Fortunately I am not a short seller, but I do strongly believe that those that are leveraged up on Vancouver residential real estate should strongly look at their holdings and ask themselves whether they could financially handle a 20-25% decline in valuation over a two year period. Even after such a correction, property values would still be at the higher end of a rational price range.

A lot of people use real estate as a “store of value” – i.e. owning the title to land is a better proposition than holding cash, which could potentially depreciate through inflation. While you can claim diversification, I do not believe it is hedging risk of depreciation of the asset value. Contrast this with an investment in a large natural resource company that has plenty of reserves, or a low-cost leader in consumer staples, and you will likely find better stores of value there than the existing Vancouver real estate market.