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Housing Market Another Victim of the Virus

Data released this morning from the Canadian Real Estate Association (CREA) showed national home sales fell 14.3% on a month-over-month (m-o-m) basis in March, the first national indication of the early impact of social isolation. The economic disruption and massive layoffs caused both buyers and sellers to increasingly retreat to the sidelines over the second half of the month.

Transactions were down on a m-o-m basis in the vast majority of local markets last month. Among Canada’s largest markets, sales declined in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) (-20.8%), Montreal (-13.3%), Greater Vancouver (-2.9%), the Fraser Valley (-13.6%), Calgary (-26.3%), Edmonton (-13.2%), Winnipeg (-7.3%), Hamilton-Burlington (-24.9%) and Ottawa (-7.9%).

Actual (not seasonally adjusted) sales activity was still running 7.8% above a quiet March in 2019, although that was a considerable slowdown compared to the y-o-y gain of close to 30% recorded in February.

"March 2020 will be remembered around the planet for a long time. Canadian home sales and listings were increasing heading into what was expected to be a busy spring for Canadian REALTORS®,” said Jason Stephen, president of CREA. “After Friday the 13th, everything went sideways. REALTORS® are complying with government directives and advice, all the while adopting virtual technologies allowing them to continue showing properties to clients already in the market, and completing all necessary documents."

“Numbers for March 2020 are a reflection of two very different realities, with most of the stronger sales and price growth recorded during the pre-COVID-19 reality which we are no longer in,” said Shaun Cathcart, CREA’s Senior Economist. “The numbers that matter most for understanding what follows are those from mid-March on, and things didn’t really start to ratchet down until week four. Preliminary data from the first week of April suggest both sales and new listings were only about half of what would be normal for that time of year.”

New Listings
The number of newly listed homes declined by 12.5% in March compared to the prior month. As with sales, the declines were recorded across the country. 

With sales and new listings each falling by similar magnitudes in March, the national sales-to-new listings ratio edged back to 64% compared to 65.4% in February. While this is down slightly, the bigger picture is that this measure of market balance was remarkably little changed considering the extent to which current economic and social conditions are impacting both buyers and sellers.

Based on a comparison of the sales-to-new listings ratio with the long-term average, two-thirds of all local markets were in balanced market territory in March 2020. Virtually all of the remainder continued to favour sellers.

There were 4.3 months of inventory on a national basis at the end of March 2020. While this is up from the almost 15-year low of 3.8 months recorded in February, it remains almost a full month below the long-term average of 5.2 months. With the overall number of listings on the market continuing to fall in March, the m-o-m decline in the months of inventory measure was entirely the result of the outsized drop in sales activity.

The number of months of inventory is well above long-term averages in the Prairie provinces and Newfoundland & Labrador. By contrast, the measure is running well below long-term averages in Ontario, Quebec and the Maritime provinces. The measure remains in balanced territory in British Columbia.

Home Prices

With measures of market balance at this point, little changed from recent history, and most of the impact on sales and listings from the COVID-19 situation only showing up towards the end of March, the impact on housing prices will likely take a little longer to become apparent. Price measures for March 2020 were strongly influenced by very tight markets and a very strong start to the spring market in many parts of Canada before physical distancing measures were implemented.

The Aggregate Composite MLS® Home Price Index (MLS® HPI) rose 0.8% in March 2020 compared to February, marking its 10th consecutive monthly gain.

The MLS® HPI was up in March 2020 compared to the previous month in 16 of the 19 markets tracked by the index. (See the Table below)

Looking at the major Prairie markets, home price trends have ticked downwards in Calgary and Edmonton to start 2020 but have generally been stable since the beginning of last year. Prices in Saskatoon have also been stable over the last year, while those in Regina have continued to trend lower. Prices in Winnipeg have been on a slow upward trend since the beginning of 2019.

Meanwhile, the recovery in home prices has been in full swing throughout British Columbia and in Ontario’s Greater Golden Horseshoe (GGH) region. Further east, price growth in Ottawa, Montreal and Moncton continues as it has for some time now, with Ottawa and Montreal prices accelerating to start 2020.

Bottom Line: Clearly this is only the beginning, but the plunge in sales and new listings in the second half of March is indicative of the stall out in housing market activity likely until social distancing is removed and people feel safe enough to resume normal activities. No doubt, at that point, there will be buying opportunities, but right now, housing is just another contributor to the collapse in the economy.
 

Why Are Mortgage Rates Rising?

 

 

 

Over the past month, the Bank of Canada has lowered its overnight rate by a whopping 1.5 percentage points to a mere 0.25%. Many people expected mortgage rates to fall equivalently. The banks have reduced prime rates by the full 150 basis points (bps). But, since the second Bank of Canada rate cut on March 13, banks and other lenders have hiked mortgage rates for fixed- and variable-rate loans. That's not what happens typically when the Bank cuts its overnight rate. But these are extraordinary times.

The Covid-19 pandemic has disrupted everything, shutting down the entire global economy and damaging business and consumer confidence. No one knows when it will end. This degree of uncertainty and the risk to our health is profoundly unnerving.

Most businesses have ground to a halt, so unemployment has surged. Hourly workers and many of the self-employed have found themselves with no income for an indeterminate period. All but essential workers are staying at home, including vast numbers of students and pre-school children. Nothing like this has happened in the past century. The societal and emotional toll is enormous, and governments at all levels are introducing income support programs for individuals and businesses, but so far, no cheques are in the mail.

In consequence, the economy hasn't just slowed; it has frozen in place and is rapidly contracting. Travel has stopped. Trade and transport have stopped. Manufacturing and commerce have stopped. And this is happening all over the world.

What's more, the Saudis and Russians took advantage of the disruption to escalate oil production and drive down prices in a thinly veiled attempt to drive marginal producers in the US and Canada out of business. This has compounded the negative impact on our economy and dramatically intensified the plunge in our stock market.

Many Canadians are now forced to live off their savings or go into debt until employment insurance and other government assistance kicks in, and even when it does, it will not cover 100% of the income loss. The majority of the population has very little savings, so people are resort to drawing on their home equity lines of credit (HELOCs), other credit lines or adding to credit card debt. Businesses are doing the same.

The good news is that people and businesses that already have loans tied to the prime rate are enjoying a significant reduction in their monthly payments. All of the major banks have reduced their prime rates from 3.95% to 2.45%. So people or businesses with floating-rate loans, be they mortgages or HELOCs or commercial lines of credit, have seen their monthly borrowing costs fall by 1.5 percentage points. That helps to reduce the burden of dipping into this source of funds to replace income.

So Why Are Mortgage Rates For New Loans Rising?

These disruptive forces of Covid-19 have markedly reduced the earnings of banks and other lenders and dramatically increased their risk. That is why the stock prices of banks and other publically-traded lenders have fallen very sharply, causing their dividend yields to rise to levels well above government bond yields. As an example, Royal Bank's stock price has fallen 22% year-to-date (ytd), increasing its annual dividend yield to 5.31%. For CIBC, it has been even worse. Its stock price has fallen 30%, driving its dividend yield to 7.66%. To put this into perspective, the 10-year Government of Canada bond yield is only 0.64%. The gap is a reflection of the investor perception of the risk confronting Canadian banks.

Thus, the cost of funds for banks and other lenders has risen sharply despite the cut in the Bank of Canada's overnight rate. The cheapest source of funding is short-term deposits--especially savings and chequing accounts. Still, unemployed consumers and shut-down businesses are withdrawing these deposits to pay the rent and put food on the table.

Longer-term deposits called GICs, which stands for Guaranteed Investment Certificates, are a more expensive source of funds. Still, owing to their hefty penalties for early withdrawal, they become a more reliable funding source at a time like this. As noted by Rob Carrick, consumer finance reporter for the Globe and Mail, "GIC rates should be in the toilet right now because that's what rates broadly do in times of economic stress. But GIC rates follow a similar path to mortgage rates, which have risen lately as lenders price rising default risk into borrowing costs."

To attract funds, some of the smaller banks have increased their savings and GIC rates. For example, EQ Bank is paying 2.45% on its High-Interest Savings Account and 2.55% on its 5-year GIC. Other small banks are also hiking GIC rates, raising their cost of funds. Rob McLister noted that "The likes of Home Capital, Equitable Bank and Canadian Western Bank have lifted their 1-year GIC rates over 65 bps in the last few weeks, according to data from noted housing analyst Ben Rabidoux."

The banks are having to set aside funds to cover rising loan loss reserves, which exacerbates their earnings decline. An unusually large component of Canadian bank loan losses is coming from the oil sector. Still, default risk is rising sharply for almost every business, small and large--think airlines, shipping companies, manufacturers, auto dealers, department stores, etc.

Lenders have also been swamped by thousands of applications to defer mortgage payments.

Hence, confronted with rising costs and falling revenues, the banks are tightening their belts. They slashed their prime rates but eliminated the discounts to prime for new variable-rate mortgage loans. Some lenders will no doubt start charging prime plus a premium for such mortgage loans. Banks have also raised fixed-rate mortgage rates as these myriad pressures reducing bank earnings are causing investors to insist banks pay more for the funds they need to remain liquid.

An additional concern is that financial markets have become less and less liquid--sellers cannot find buyers at reasonable prices. The 'bid-ask' spreads are widening. That's why the central bank and CMHC are buying mortgage-backed securities in enormous volumes. That is also why the Bank of Canada has started large-scale weekly buying of government securities and commercial paper. These government entities have become the buyer of last resort, providing liquidity to the mortgage and bond markets.

These markets are crucial to the financial stability of Canada. Large-scale purchases of securities are called "quantitative easing" and have never been used before by the Bank of Canada. It was used extensively by the Fed and other central banks during the 2008-10 financial crisis. When business and consumer confidence is so low that nothing the central bank can do will spur investment and spending, they resort to quantitative easing to keep financial markets functioning. In today's world, businesses and consumers are locked down, and no one knows when it will end. With so much uncertainty, confidence about the future diminishes. The natural tendency is for people to cancel major expenditures and hunker down.

We are living through an unprecedented period. When the health emergency has passed, we will celebrate a return to a new normal. In the meantime, seemingly odd things will continue to happen in financial markets.

   

Mortgage lender contact numbers & financial assistance details

Lender Contact Information

During this time, it is best to discuss your mortgage with your mortgage broker or lender should you have any financial concerns surrounding the COVID-19 outbreak. Please be advised, there may be longer than normal wait times for calls during this situation and to expect at least 20-30 minutes for a representative. Be sure to have your mortgage number available to ensure smoother service and remember to be kind!

Here are some direct contact numbers for various lenders across the country:

LENDERSCONTACT #NOTES
ATB 1-800-332-8383
B2B 1-800-263-8349
Bank of Montreal 1-877-895-3278
Bridgewater 1-866-243-4301
Canadiana 1-877-315-1633
CFF Bank 1-855-767-3031
Chinook Financial 403-934-3358
CIBC 1-800-465-2422
CMLS Financial 1-888-995-2657
Connect First 1-403-520-8000
Dominion Mortgage 1-866-928-6810
Equitable 1-866-407-0004
First Calgary Financial 403-736-4000
First National 1-888-488-0794
Haventree 1-855-727-0051
Home Trust 1-855-270-3630
HomeEquity Bank 1-866-331-2447
HSBC 1-888-310-4722
ICICI 1-888-424-2422
Lendwise 1-866-675-7022
Manulife 1-800-268-6195
Marathon 1-855-503-6060
MCAP 1-866-809-5800
Merix 1-877-637-4911
National Bank 1-888-835-6281
Optimum 1-866-441-3775
PC Financial 1-888-723-8881
Radius Financial 1-866-550-8227
RFA 1-866-939-5005 Mortgage Numbers
Starting with 4
RFA 1-877-776-6888 Mortgage Numbers
Starting with 6
RFA 1-833-228-5697 Mortgage Numbers
Starting with 7, 8 or 9
RMG 1-866-809-5800
Royal Bank 1-800-768-2511
Scotiabank 1-800-472-6842
Servus 1-877-378-8728
Street Capital
See RFA
Tangerine 1-888-826-4374
TD 1-888-720-0075
UPDATE 4: ADDITIONAL FINANCIAL MEASURES

In addition to helping homeowners manage their finances through deferred mortgage payments and adjustments, the Canadian Government has also come to the aid of families who may be struggling currently.

To help those currently struggling, the following measures are being taken or have already been implemented:

  • Income Tax Payments: The Canada Revenue Agency will allow all taxpayers to defer payments for any income tax amounts that are owing between March 18, 2020 and September 2020 until August 31, 2020. No interest or penalties will accumulate on these amounts during this period.
    • Taxpayers who are required to remit quarterly installments may benefit from up to 5 months of tax deferral.
  • Income Tax Filing: Income tax return filing has been extended one month from April 30, 2020 until June 1, 2020.
    • If you receive and rely on the GST credit or the Canada Child Benefit, it is still ideal to file sooner to ensure that the entitlements for the 2020-2021 benefit year are not delayed.
    • For trusts with a December 31, 2019 year-end, the tax return filing due date has been extended to May 1, 2020 (from March 30, 2020)
  • Registered Retirement Income Funds (RRIFs): The required minimum withdrawals from RRIFs will be reduced by 25% for the 2020 tax year.

In addition, the Canada Revenue Agency is adapting their Outreach Program in order to better support individuals during COVID-19. This service allows the CRA to offer assistance to ensure individuals understand their tax obligations and to help them obtain the benefits and credits to which they are entitled.

Emergency Funds During COVID-19

  • GST Credit: $400 for single adults, $600 for couples
  • Child Tax Benefit Top-Up: An additional $300 per child
  • Student Loan Payment Defferal:
    • 6 month timeframe
    • No payments
    • No interest accrual
  • Indigenous community based support fund
  • $200 million provided for community resources such as:
    • Shelters/homeless needs
    • Sexual abuse/transition house needs
  • 10% wage subsidy for small to medium sized businesses for employees
    • $25,000 per employer
  • Ensured Mortgage Protection Program
    • $50 billion provided
    • Payment deferrals
    • Special payment arrangements
  • Bank Supports
    • Auto loans
    • Deferral of payments possible
    • Contact bank directly
    • Speak to your institutes
  • Emergency Support Fund
    • $5 billion – more information to come
   

Minister Morneau Announces New Benchmark Rate for Qualifying For Insured Mortgages

The new qualifying rate will be the mortgage contract rate or a newly created benchmark very close to it plus 200 basis points, in either case. The News Release from the Department of Finance Canada states, "the Government of Canada has introduced measures to help more Canadians achieve their housing needs while also taking measured actions to contain risks in the housing market. A stable and healthy housing market is part of a strong economy, which is vital to building and supporting a strong middle class."

These changes will come into effect on April 6, 2020. The new benchmark rate will be the weekly median 5-year fixed insured mortgage rate from mortgage insurance applications, plus 2%.

This follows a recent review by federal financial agencies, which concluded that the minimum qualifying rate should be more dynamic to reflect the evolution of market conditions better. Overall, the review concluded that the mortgage stress test is working to ensure that home buyers are able to afford their homes even if interest rates rise, incomes change, or families are faced with unforeseen expenses.

This adjustment to the stress test will allow it to be more representative of the mortgage rates offered by lenders and more responsive to market conditions.

The Office of the Superintendent of Financial Institutions (OSFI) also announced today that it is considering the same new benchmark rate to determine the minimum qualifying rate for uninsured mortgages.

The existing qualification rule, which was introduced in 2016 for insured mortgages and in 2018 for uninsured mortgages, wasn't responsive enough to the recent drop in lending interest rates -- effectively making the stress test too tight. The earlier rule established the big-six bank posted rate plus 2 percentage points as the qualifying rate. Banks have increasingly held back from adjusting their posted rates when 5-year market yields moved downward. With rates falling sharply in recent weeks, especially since the coronavirus scare, the gap between posted and contract mortgage rates has widened even more than what was already evident in the past two years. 

This move, effective April 6, should reduce the qualifying rate by about 30 basis points if contract rates remain at roughly today's levels. According to a Department of Finance official, "As of February 18, 2020, based on the weekly median 5-year fixed insured mortgage rate from insured mortgage applications received by the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, the new benchmark rate would be roughly 4.89%."  That's 30 basis points less than today's benchmark rate of 5.19%.

The Bank of Canada will calculate this new benchmark weekly, based on actual rates from mortgage insurance applications, as underwritten by Canada's three default insurers.

OSFI confirmed today that it, too, is considering the new benchmark rate for its minimum stress test rate on uninsured mortgages (mortgages with at least 20% equity).

"The proposed new benchmark for uninsured mortgages is based on rates from mortgage applications submitted by a wide variety of lenders, which makes it more representative of both the broader market and fluctuations in actual contract rates," OSFI said in its release.

"In addition to introducing a more accurate floor, OSFI's proposal maintains cohesion between the benchmarks used to qualify both uninsured and insured mortgages." (Thank goodness, as the last thing the mortgage market needs is more complexity.)

The new rules will certainly add to what was already likely to be a buoyant spring housing market. While it might boost buying power by just 3% (depending on what the new benchmark turns out to be on April 6), the psychological boost will be positive. Homebuyers—particularly first-time buyers—are already worried about affordability, given the double-digit gains of the last 12 months.

   

Five Tips on How to Increase Your Credit Score Quickly

In order to qualify for certain mortgage and loan products, a minimum credit score is essential. Even if your score is sufficient to qualify, you might find the rates being offered will be lower than if you had a higher score.

Having worked with thousands of personal credit histories over the years, we have developed some strategies that sometimes give you that much needed quick score boostsort of like jumper cables for credit!

tips to improve your credit scoreHere are a few scenarios this might help with:

  • You are being pre-approved for a mortgage, but your bank or broker remark your score is too low and you don’t qualify.
  • You want to qualify for a mortgage AND a home equity line of credit (HELOC), but your lender says you need a higher score to get both.
  • You are working with a mortgage broker who is arranging a mortgage with a B-lender for you. She tells you that your interest rate will be lower if your Equifax Fico score is over 680.

And it’s not just about homeownership…

  • You are preparing your pitch to prospective landlords. These days, that often includes your credit report. Your chances will be better if your score is in the 700s or even 800s.
  • You want to apply for a personal line of credit or a high-end personal credit card, but your score is too low.

1. Use The Optimal Utilization Strategy

When maximizing your personal credit score, you should look at your utilization of available credit for each individual credit facility. By this I mean what percentage of your available credit is the balance being reported?

Percentage utilization can have a significant impact on your personal credit score. Equifax Canada states utilization has a 30% weighting on your personal credit score.

Optimal Utilization Strategy for credit scoreOne scenario: maybe a furniture store or a home improvement store offered you “don’t pay for one year.” The balance you are carrying on this card might be relatively small, but if it’s at or over the actual card limit, this is dragging down your personal credit score. Consider paying it off now!

Another scenario: suppose you have three credit cards, each with a limit of $10,000.

And let’s say one card has a balance owing of $9,900 and the other two have zero balances. This might happen because you are trying to earn rewards on one particular card, or maybe you said yes to a balance transfer promotional offer.

Chances are your credit score is lower than if the usage was spread across the three cards equallyi.e., each with a balance owing of $3,300, or 33% of the limit.

Overall, your usage remains unchanged, but now you no longer have an individual card reporting at 99% utilization.

If you can afford to cover or reduce the balance owing on the one with a balance of $9,900, you should see a nice little score boost.

2. Use the Statement Date Strategy

It may be that the best thing for you to do is simply reduce balances owing on your credit facilities. If time is of the essence, you should plan this carefully and do it in the correct order.

Gather up your most recent available statements for all relevant credit facilities. And note the day of the month when the statement was printed. Most of the time it’s the balance on that statement date that is being reported to the credit bureau.

And give or take a day, it is safe to assume that same day of the following month is when the next statement will be issued.

So, plan your payments accordingly. And allow several business days for online payments to process in time. If you are paying a credit card issued by your own bank, you should see transfer payments being processed either instantly or overnight.

3. Pay It Down and Keep It Down

pay down your debtThis is especially important when your limits are not very large. Suppose you are a model citizen who uses her credit card frequently, and pays the balance in full every month after receiving the monthly statement, and before the due date.

That is the “correct way” to manage your credittaking advantage of the grace period you are given by all card issuers.

But these days, there is little benefit to trying to use up the entire grace period because current account interest rates are so low they are pretty much negligible. It’s far better to pay your balance in full before your statements come out. You are even more of a model citizen, and now the balance being reported to the credit bureau will always be extremely small, if anything.

4. Exercise All Dormant Credit Cards and Lines of Credit

Some people have credit facilities they never use. People tend to favour one particular credit card (maybe we like their rewards program) and we might neglect our other cards. And most of the time we don’t even need our personal line of credit.

If you are trying to maximize your credit score, it is good to use all available credit fairly regularly, even if it’s just for a nanosecond.

It will rarely be correct to close these older credit facilities since they are contributing ‘score juice.’ Equifax Canada states your history can have a 15% weighting on your personal credit score.

These credit facilities can become stale and may not be not pulling their weight on your personal credit history. Update the DLA (date of last activity) with a modest transaction and then pay it online immediately. If it’s a personal line of credit, just transfer $10 to yourself and the next day transfer back $10.50.

If you notice you have credit cards that have not seen daylight for months or years, take them to the supermarket or gas station, use them just once, and pay online right away. After the next statement these cards will report the date of last activity as the current month and year, and that may give you some much-needed points.

5. Scour & Clean All Reporting Errors

There might be some incorrect information in your personal credit history that’s needlessly dragging down your score.

A few examples include:

  • You have two or more personal profiles with the credit bureau and your information is scattered and diffused. Combining it all into one credit report could well increase your score and strengthen your look. (This often happens to people whose name is hard to spell, or who have legally changed their name).
  • Late payments being reported when it’s not you. Maybe you have a relative with the exact same name.
  • That router you returned to the cable company is showing as a collection; but in fact you returned it to the local store.
  • You completed a consumer proposal and all the debts included in the proposal should be reporting zero balances and should not carry an “R9” rating. This generally means an account has been placed for collection or is considered un-collectible.
  • There may be incorrect late payments. Equifax Canada states payment history has a 35% weighting on your personal credit score.

Mortgage brokers can fast track an investigation with Equifax Canada for you. What might take you two months, we can get done in a few days. Keep that in mind if time is of the essence.

improving your financial healthThe Takeaway

This overview is a fairly simplistic way of looking at your personal credit report and highlights initiatives specifically intended to give your credit score a quick boost. These tips are not necessarily the same as when you are managing for optimal credit health or interest-expense minimization.

Ideally, you are working with someone who understands all the nuances and who can help you determine what your priorities should be. Simply give us a call if you would like a professional assessment of your current credit status, we can help tailor a plan specific to your needs and help you succeed!


   

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