The First Conservative Ontario Budget in 15 years

This week, the new Ford PC government released its first budget. The document outlines a new vision for the province and sets of the government’s fiscal strategy for the next few years. Contrary to the views of many, the budget did not implement massive cuts. Healthcare and education spending will be increasingly modestly, spending for most other areas will either rise extremely modestly and will be effectively frozen over the next few years. When adjusted for inflation, most departments and Ministries will see their budgets cut.

 

The province’s headline announcement is transit related. Premier Ford wants to see a number of new public transit lines built, including a 3-stop Scarborough subway, a subway to Richmond Hill, a downtown relief line from the Science Centre to Queen St .East westward to Ontario Place, a transit line along Sheppard Ave. East, and a subway across central Etobicoke. The province is setting aside over $11 billion to the construction of these lines and expects the federal government and the regional municipalities involved to foot the rest of the project $28 billion cost of these projects. If completed, these lines will have enormous implications for densification, land values, traffic, and economic growth. But massive public transit plans have been announced by provincial governments of all political stripes repeatedly over the last 40 years, and few projects have actually been completed.

There were few mentions of housing, housing affordability, or real estate; these announcements are likely to come later given recent reviews of the industry. There will be a new child tax credit for parents which is quite substantive. Overall, the budget is transit focused and seeks to maintain spending at levels where they are presently.

Bully Bids and Bans

Ontario’s powerful realtors and their respective lobbying vehicle, the Ontario Real Estate Association (OREA) have asked Doug Ford’s provincial government to outlaw the practice of ‘bully offers.’

A bully bid is an offer submitted by a prospective buyer ahead of a seller’s established offer time. These bids are largely designed to aggressively pre-empt purchasing activity from other potential buyers and to place pressure on the seller to accept. This aggressive bid is submitted before the designated offer day. Sellers accept the bully bid if they believe that it will exceed what they will get conventionally. 

The practice can occasionally result in one buyer out-muscling potential counterparts and entices a seller to close a deal quickly without reviewing and considering other potential bids. The move is seen as unfair and limiting to realtors, who have little room to bid up prices if only one bid is submitted and ultimately accepted. Realtors also feel banning bully bids would enhance fairness in the market and allow all prospective buyers, or at the very least a greater number of them than present, will be allowed to participate in bids. OREA submitted 28 recommendations on reforms to their profession to the government which is currently reviewing the Real Estate and Business Brokers Act; the landmark legislation governing real estate professionals.

OREA is headed by Tim Hudak, the former Leader of the now governing PC Party of Ontario. The organization is heavily staffed with politically minded employees and is close with the present administration and enjoyed reasonable ties with the former Liberal Government. Several PC lawmakers and government staffers are former realtors and the government is keen to develop and maintain strong ties with realtors, developers, and the construction industry. These groups have heavily bankrolled the PC Party in the past. 

 

The Fed Rate Freeze

It’s over folks, the Federal Reserve has given up on raising rates to historical levels. The announcement was preceded by rumours and media opinions suggesting the old hike schedule was dead and buried. The Fed’s new schedule outlines no further increases in interest rates for the year of 2019. The next expected rate hike will occur sometime in 2020, if not in 2021. The extent of the Fed’s ‘retreat’ surprised many, given the central bank’s previous dedication to rebuilding its rate cushion to historical norms. The implication of this change will be massive. 

 

The Fed’s decision will pressure the Bank of Canada to maintain a similar trajectory of rate pauses. This will be a boon to the present Canadian status-quo of high debt, ease of credit access, and real estate orthodoxy. There will be positives and negatives to this monetary policy shift. Several factors have pushed the Fed into this corner. For one, economic statistics in the U.S. are worrying policymakers. Home foreclosures are rising and real estate demand is slowing, GDP growth is beginning to falter, and fiscal and trade deficits are on the up. Employment gains have also slowed, in February, the U.S. generated only 20,000 jobs – less than Ontario alone.

 

Political pressure from the White House is also having an impact. Freed from the strains of the ‘Russian collusion’ narrative, Trump is free to enhance his harping on economic and trade issues. This was seen several days ago when he urged OPEC to increase oil production to buttress see-sawing U.S. stock markets. He has repeatedly criticized the Fed publicly and abrasively in a way that no President has since LBJ in the mid 1960s. These attacks and pressures on the Fed prompted a rare 60 Minutes interview where Fed Chair Jerome Powell outlined his views that he cannot be legally fired and that the Fed is concerned over the state of the U.S. economy.

 

The sudden dovishness of the Fed suggests that the underlying state of the U.S. economy is not as healthy as President Trump believes. If the economy is better now ‘then ever before’, than why is the Fed incapable of raising rates to historical averages of 3-5%? The BOC is unlikely to raise rates while they are being frozen in Washington, as this would soften up the Canadian economy and strengthen the dollar at the expense of Canadian manufacturers and exporters. Tembo’s prediction of an end to rate hikes from a slowing economy have come true.

This Year’s Federal Budget

Budget 2019 is the final Liberal budget before this year’s election. It outlined billions of dollars in new spending to please key Constituencies across the country. The Federal government has seen its revenues rise by over $10 billion from a strong and growing economy and wasted no time in maintaining its deficit figures and boosting outlays.

The budget does, however, deliver major initiatives designed to address housing anxieties, this blog post will discuss those measures.

 

First time home-buyer incentive program

The Feds have announced a $1.25 billion first time home buyer incentive program. Households with less than $120,000 in income will be able to receive up to 10% of a home’s down payment interest free from the CMHC (Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation). This amount of money is expected to be repaid on the eventual sale of the home. For a $400K condo, this equates to $40K in government money for a down payment. In other words, the government will provide you with tens of thousands of dollars which will be taken away from the overall equity of the home. This will also lower monthly mortgage payments by roughly $200 a month.

 

RRSP usage

The budget also boost the amount of money a first-time buyer can withdraw from his or her RRSP for a home purchase. Individuals can withdraw up to $35,000, and a couple can withdraw $70,000 for their home purchase. This was the first time this amount was amended in over 10 years. The Feds are aiming to get both the RRSP increase and incentive program initiated and out the door by September.

 

New housing builds

The Feds also announced the construction of over 40,000 new housing units in low-supply areas to be built over the next decade. These units will be rental. This announcement builds on past promises to build more housing and honours the government’s election promise of adding housing stock.

 

On Real Estate Predictions for Spring 2019

It’s hard to predict real estate trends and long term changes. Experts, economists, and real estate watchers will all have their views. Southern Ontario and GTA residents are generally positive about the long term fundamentals.

 

They believe that immigration, a stable economy, and a sound financial system will all facilitate long term growth and general real estate stability. This positivity comes from the fact that since the early 1990s, the real estate market has been on a positive upswing. Only two brief periods saw prices and demand ease, in the early 2000s with the popping of the dot-com bubble, and in 08-09, with the Great Recession.

 

Overall, given the data we now have and the trends we’re aware of, there is little that suggests there will be drastic changes to the real estate market. Expectations suggest that the price growth we saw in the last few years are unlikely to return. Interest rates will remain stable. While the BOC will want to raise rates when necessary, there is the dual pressure of not overwhelming consumers with higher borrowing costs and managing economic expectations.

 

Demand will continue to be strong. Experts are predicting stable or increased demand for luxurious apartment and detached home units as international money shifts out of Australia, the UK, and New Zealand in favour of Canada and the U.S. Condo prices and demand are likely going to trend higher, as detached home prices are still too high for first time buyers. As for prices and sales, both are expected to trend upwards in the Spring. A 30 year fixed rate mortgage is trending at 4.375%.

 

 

Mixed Real Estate Conditions and a Potential BOC Rate Cut

 

The Greater Vancouver Real Estate Board released rough real estate stats earlier this week. Reports showed that year-over-year Feb. residential home sales fell over 30%. This represents the worst Feb. sales total since 1985, over 40% below the last decade’s average.

Detached homes lasted roughly 55 days on the market before sale, while townhouses averaged 39 days and apartments and condos at 40. Prices also fell by over 6% year-over-year, while at the same time, inventories are piling up. Total listings rose by over 48% year-over-year to almost 11,600.

In Toronto, prices rose by 1.6% while listings fell 6.2%, sales fell by 2.4%. Canada’s banks are also feeling the heat of an inconsistent real estate market. Credit losses rose by double digits at the big 5. The same credit losses were seen in the Australian banking and real estate markets as well and in other countries dependent on real estate.

Economic stats have dipped into such negative territory so quickly that news is spreading of the possibility that the BOC may cut rates soon. Tembo has consistently made the point that the BOC will stick to an aggressive and consistent rate hike trajectory until economic conditions change. While most experts believe that rates will stay put, the potential for a cut will grow if economic conditions continue to worsen. As we previously reported, the economic recently contracted by a very narrow margin.

On an additional note, the City of Toronto will convene on Thursday, March 7th to pass its 2019 budget. The budget outlines a massive drop in land transfer tax revenues because of stalling real estate conditions. The City has become addicted to the previously perpetually rising land transfer tax which financed large increases in city spending. That era has come to a close.

SNC Lavalin Scandal Could Change Canada’s Government

The Federal government is reeling from the pressure of a scandal that has shaken elite circles across the country. Extensive media coverage in the last several days has widely revealed the scandal to the public – we are of course talking about the Jody Wilson Raybould and SNC Lavalin. 

In essence, former Attorney General of Canada, Jody Wilson Raybould refused to provide a deferred prosecution agreement for SNC Lavalin – a Quebec based engineering giant. SNC Lavalin had previously bribed the government of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya for construction contracts. Despite tremendous pressure from the Prime Minister himself, high ranking public servants, and other leading political figures, Jody Wilson Raybould refused to yield. 
SNC Lavalin employs thousands in Quebec and Montreal, the home province and home city of Justin Trudeau. It is a well connected and storied company, with deep political connections. The Liberal Party of Canada has long had deep ties with large Montreal firms and the city’s old money aristocracy. As for Mrs. Wilson-Raybould, she revealed the extent of her principled core values and followed in the footsteps of her father – who fought political battles with Justin Trudeau’s father, Pierre Elliott Trudeau. Mrs. Wilson-Raybould and her father are well known and respected Indigenous Canadians. 
The now fully unveiled scandal has led to a media frenzy, a sharp drop in opinion polls and support for the government, and Ottawa’s dirtiest laundry now out in plain sight for the public. Media commentators were all ubiquitous and sharp in their criticism of the Prime Minister – many of whom suggested that he should resign or that the government’s reputation is now seriously compromised. The scandal also led to the shock resignation of Trudeau’s Principal Secretary Gerald Butts, the second most powerful man in Ottawa and one of Trudeau’s closest personal friends.
While this year’s federal election is still 7 months away, an eternity in politics, the SNC Lavalin scandal continues to unfold. The instability could fuel more political drama and both opposition parties will look to take advantage. 

On Toronto’s Move For More Affordable Housing

With sky-high real estate prices, extremely limited supply, and a vacancy rate incomparable to its international competitors, Toronto is in the midst of a housing crisis. Housing, transit, and affordability were the key issues for politicians in last year’s Mayoral and Council elections. 

John Tory

Toronto Mayor Pushes Housing Now Plan

Incumbent Mayor John Tory made tackling the housing supply issue a key commitment if re-elected, and many City Councillors emulated that promise. A week ago, the Mayor successfully persuaded his Council colleagues to endorse his Housing Now Plan and to vote it through. The plan is an aggressive measure being heavily pushed through by the Mayor and senior City bureaucrats. 

The Housing Now plan calls on the City to facilitate the transfer of surplus land to private sector partners so as to develop it into housing. A certain amount of the finished units are to be set aside as affordable units with controlled rent. This is geared to benefit low income families. Toronto has a massive list of individuals and families waiting for affordable housing. In total, the plan is expected to result in 10,000 new units of real estate.

As Toronto has a weak Mayor system, its Mayor does not have executive powers and serves more as a glorified City Councillor acting as the Chair of Council. Unlike many of his American and international counterparts, he has no veto over votes, and cannot directly replace the departmental heads of the City’s large civil service. 

Officials have been eager to push the plan through given its importance, and this effort has been largely supported by City Councillors. The Housing Now plan was opposed by many of the city’s more left-wing politicians, who believed it did not go far enough and that its targets and limitations were not ambitious enough.

All levels of government will continue to increase their intervention in the real estate market so as to spur more development for an increasingly impatient pool of prospective buyers.

 

Mortgages Stress Tests Are Slowing Canadian Real Estate Market

The head of one of the country’s largest and most influential real estate bodies has made a strong case to one of the nation’s foremost regulatory bodies to ‘revisit’ its support of stress tests. The head of the Toronto Real Estate Board has complained that stress tests are too cautious and are having an extreme dampening effect on the market.

As a reminder to our readers, stress tests were implemented by the federal government in 2017 to reduce risk of poor mortgage lending and to shore up the housing market.

Stress tests scrutinize mortgage buys from prospective buyers with deposits at less than 20% of the purchase price and with no mortgage insurance. Stress tests provide incentives to purchase mortgage insurance, which can be costly, and add another layer of analysis to the already comprehensive mortgage approval process. Canada’s already notoriously conservative banks were made even more scrupulous with the introduction of the stress test.

Stress Test Have Dampened Demand

Stress tests were designed to demonstrate whether a low deposit mortgage could withstand a 2% added interest rate cost from the BOC. The effects of these stress tests have been to dampen demand. Research has shown that stress tests effectively blocked up to 100,000 first time home buyers from being approved for a mortgage. They were supported by risk-averse bureaucrats and economists who fear a housing bubble and who are worried about the quality of mortgage issuance in the country.
In response to these complaints, the OSFI, or Office of the Superintendent of Financial Institutions, Canada’s core banking regulator, stated that it will be sticking to the stress tests. In addition, it made the point that the stress test adds a margin of safety that is ‘prudent.’ With weakening real estate data spreading around the country, pressure from real estate bodies and experts on regulators and the Bank of Canada will continue. 

US Fed Made Some Significant Shifts In Tone & Policy Last Week

We’re addicted to covering the Federal Reserve at Tembo for the simple reason that it effectively runs the global economy and sets the tone for Canada’s economy, exchange rate, and real estate market. It is that important an organization.

James Powell, US Fed Chair
The Fed has made big changes in tone and policy lately, it appears growingly certain that its previous zealous push for higher rates has now been put on a deep pause. The word on the street is now all about ‘rate hike pausing.’ The Fed has been under huge pressure from business leaders, Wall Street insiders, softening economic data, and Donald J. Trump himself. 
Fed Chair Jerome Powell did not raise rates at the last Fed policy announcement. Former Fed Governor Neel Kashkari said the pause would allow the economy to keep growing. Global markets have reacted to the news timidly. While no big falls in stocks occurred, global markets at best were static.
There is simply too much negative news, too much uncertainty, and too much increasingly bleak data around the world to heighten optimism to boom levels. Here in Canada, the Fed’s pause is likely to reinforce the BOC’s own caution given Canada’s own worsening economic data. This pause will be good news for Canadian real estate, already under big pressure.
At the same time, the Fed issued a paper suggesting that negative interest rates, where the Central Bank pays borrowers to borrow money, would have engendered a fasterand deeper economic recovery. This not so subtle message to the market suggests the Fed is making it clear that it is still in the business of inflating stock, asset, and real estate bubbles and making money dirt cheap if need be.