The Benefits of Turmoil Abroad

With political and economic instability growing around the world, havens of stability and calm will be increasingly sought out by the aspirational middle classes, the wealthy, international businesses, and savvy investors. Canada is one of those safe havens.

While we are in no way a country bereft of serious issues, our political system is stable and not as divided as structures in the U.S., Europe, and parts of the Middle East. Our economy is in decent shape, and we have lots of untapped potential long term. We are also a tolerant and open society where openness to polarizing rhetoric is extremely limited and always has been. The world is well aware of our positives, and Canada has a solid international brand.

In Vancouver, the foreign buyers tax, shifting psychology, and an activist NDP government in Victoria have all blunted real estate. Developers continue to hold back on new construction and prices continue to fall. Chinese money no longer looks to Vancouver real estate as a safe haven. The city has worn out the welcome of foreigners and the shock of government intervention has not lifted. While Toronto’s foreign buyer tax remains unpopular with the real estate lobby, the city’s economic preponderance and heft have allowed it to absorb the consequences of the foreign buyer tax well. Significant sums of money were redirected to Toronto in light of Vancouver’s foreign buyer tax briefly, and much of that momentum is now moving further east; to Ottawa and Montreal. 

In Hong Kong, the political situation is becoming dire. The Chinese government has assembled significant military infrastructure adjacent to the city and has warned that its patience in tolerating the city’s mass protests is almost up. A direct Chinese military intervention is restoring stability to the global financial hub would have a drastic and immediate impact on the Hong Kong economy and its status as a stable centre of finance and business. Media reports in Canada and abroad are already suggesting that Hong Kong residents of means will begin moving out of the city to Taiwan, Singapore, and Korea. They will of course, be transferring their money and assets out of the city if they fear that a Chinese crackdown on dissent would affect their livelihoods. Either way, for now, Canada is well positioned to continue to be perceived as a financial and political safe place in a turbulent world. 

A Very Good July for Real Estate

Just look at these numbers, a 4.4% increase in prices from June figures, sales up over 24% from July 2018, and overall sale prices up 3.2% from July of 2018.

The average Toronto home sold for just over $806K. The number of properties that were sold went up to 8,595 from 6,916 from June. This is a huge increase, and all of those numbers were well above official inflation rates. As always, supply of the most desired real estate was tight, driving up prices, limiting options, and redirecting supply to less dense markets and different real estate products. Listings were down 9% from July 2018 numbers, outlining the extent of declining stock. In the rules of supply and demand, when supply contracts prices rise, and the cooling of the market that we’ve been used to recently definitely cooled the market.

tress tests are still around, but their shock has subsided. Families that were locked out by the tests have had more than a year to re-calibrate, to save more money, and discover new financing options. Some may have decided to buy a condo instead of a town-home, or decided to start their real estate equity in a small town as opposed to a cozy suburb. Prospective buyers who saw a cooling market pulled their listings and decided to wait the market out. The contraction in listings that followed are now seeing their impacts fully felt and that pressure is starting to turn 2-3% increases into 4% price increases. All in all, the market is re-orienting back to a more dynamic state, at least for now. 

 

But Tembo feels that certain international pressures could align to add even more oxygen to GTA real estate. First off, as we’ve reported, the Fed cut rates. Within a few days, President Trump lambasted the Fed for not cutting rates FURTHER. Market changes and instability that Tembo will outline in its newsletter have created immediate international reactions to the Fed rate cut and other socio-economic and political changes. Tembo predicts that the BOC will cut rates soon, especially if the pressure to keep monetary easing going builds up in Washington and around the world. Home prices across Canada have remained roughly static for the last two years and rate cuts at home could shift that momentum to price growth. 

On the Fed Giving In

As predicted, Fed Chairman Jerome Powell acquiesced to the relentless pressure from the White House and yesterday announced a 25 basis point cut in rates. The constant stream of snipes from Trump’s twitter account finally wore Powell out. His news conference in announcing the cut sent mixed signals and received mixed reviews.

He cited a number of factors which influenced the decision to cut; international risks, low inflation, trade tensions, and weakening growth. He claimed the cut would support U.S. economic expansion and provide extra leverage to the country in trade negotiations. Powell was highlighting an economy at risk and slowing, but simultaneously preaching a favourable long term outlook. Market reaction to the cut was negative. Stocks went down, the dollar dropped, and precious metals rose. 

Some pundits lashed out, claiming the move was unnecessary, politically weak, and that the extra stimulus would overheat stocks. Trump immediately doubled down, furthering his criticism of Powell and suggesting that the Fed should have cut deeper with a clear outline of an even lower  rate trajectory longer term. Another mixed signal from Powell came in the form of his responses to questions about what the Fed would do next. Powell claimed that the cut does not mean interest rates won’t go up again in the near future while also providing vague answers on whether further cuts were on their way. Some pundits believe this cut, or ‘mid cycle adjustment of policy,’ signals an ‘inevitable’ move towards 0% rates, quantitative easing (money printing), and potentially negative rates (where the Fed pays banks to borrow). 

The impact will be felt in Canada soon. Rob Carrick, The Globe and Mail’s Finance Columnist heralded the cut as a positive move which ‘cancelled the apocalypse for overextended borrowers.’ He effectively outlines the case that rates in Canada will now be coming down as well. History has shown that the BOC’s interest rate trajectory takes it cues from the Fed. Governor Poloz has already said the orthodox BOC line, that a Fed cut won’t impact the BOC’s decisions and that Canada doesn’t need lower rates. At the same time though, the BOC has made it clear that it will analyze and keep a close eye on the Fed’s decision and ‘dissect’ the reasons provided for the cut. In the medium term, Powell’s decision will continue to reverberate, and the pressure on easing at home will continue to build. 

Stress Test Relief!

There’s a very big real estate story that isn’t getting much widespread coverage in the community. When federal regulators announced the unveiling of tighter rules on uninsured mortgages and mortgages with down payments of less than 20 percent, the market sputtered.

The move was designed to clamp down on risky mortgages, tighten confidence in the housing sector, and to cool a market that was literally on fire. The tests required that borrowers needed to prove they would be able to manage the costs of their mortgage if rates were to rise. Experts believed the move single handedly knocked out 10% of prospective buyers from having a shot at sealing the deal on a home purchase. We’re talking about tens of thousands of people, at the least. The stress tests were praised by experts, economists, and some bankers but were lambasted by the real estate lobby and politicians. 

After almost a year of criticism and calls for reform we finally have some relief. The rate at which a mortgage holder has to qualify being able to pay for has now gone down from 5.43% to 5.19%. While not a significant change, it will have an impact on those prospective buyers on the margin. Some experts believe that the continuation of a lessening trajectory could have a significant impact on the market, with as little as a further 0.50% reduction lifting thousands into home ownership. Tim Hudak, CEO of the Ontario Real Estate Association asked for federal regulators to restore 30 year insured mortgages, to further ease stress test rules for new homebuyers, and to scrap the requirement that those who change their lender on an existing mortgage have to also pass stress tests. With an election rapidly approaching, don’t be surprised if further loosening of these rules continues, real estate has been repeatedly polled as one of the biggest concerns on peoples’ minds.

 

Finally, when Canadians were asked to pick which city they would own real estate in, the result, quite strongly, was Toronto! That’s right, our city is seen by most average Canadians as the best place in the country in which to own a home. Despite Vancouver’s beautiful natural environs, great weather, and lack of winter blues, and Montreal’s thriving cultural scene, affordable prices, and great food choices, Toronto still won out. Unfortunately for those polled, rents and home prices continue to rise in the city, with one metric showing that the price for two bedroom and one bedroom units is effectively the same. The demand for ANY space is so great that it doesn’t matter how many bedrooms it has. This summer continues to deliver positive news on the real estate file. 

On The End of the Era of Central Bank Independence

It’s all over folks. We’re going down a new road. After intense pressure from President Trump and other members of his Administration to lower rates and boost stimulus, Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell folded.

In his latest Committee Hearing with the House of Representatives in Washington, Powell outlined his view that the U.S. economy was showing signs of weakness and that the Fed would intervene more actively to stimulate it. Tembo watched the Hearing carefully and noted a stark shift in tone for Powell to a much more accommodating rhythm with a more humble persona than his usual confident, lawyer-investment banker stern self. Powell was in full listening mode. The transformation from Hawk to Dove is complete for Powell. This shift marks what is in many ways the end of Central Bank independence. Never again will the Fed be able to march on with its policies undeterred when a political figure with as volatile a record as Trump threatens the Chair with termination.

What was interesting about the hearing was the fact that Powell said that the Fed’s current huge balance sheet (now in the many trillions of dollars) was not an issue in again buying stocks and bonds ‘if it decided to do so.’ In other words, Powell was saying that even though we’ve become such an interventionist, buying bank to the tune of trillions of dollars, we’re happy to buy more if we need to. The Fed’s shift in tone was so strong that gold prices surged to multi-year highs. Markets enjoyed the capitulation of the Fed and showed solid gains. The Fed’s shift is a big win for Trump, as the political benefits from the likely economic gains from stimulus will help the President as he gears up for the 2020 election. Not since President Lyndon Johnson’s era in the late 1960s has a Fed Chair been under so much pressure from a President. But unlike the privately intimidating Johnson, Trump has been arms length, open, and very public about his disdain for the Fed’s unease of more stimulus and lower rates.

What this all means is simple. The Fed is now almost guaranteed to lower rates. It will also be much more open to reigniting the quantitative easing it pursued in the immediate aftermath of the last recession (buying assets in the open market). It is a huge political win for Trump, as his unadulterated, raw strategy of open criticism has now yielded results. When Trump started criticizing Powell he was widely mocked and attacked from across the spectrum. Nobody was used to this, and in previous political eras it would have been inconceivable for a mainstream, run of the mill politician at any level to attack the Federal Reserve or its Chair. For Canada, the Fed’s surrender will result in huge pressures on the BOC to cut rates as the game to lower the value of the dollar and lower the cost of money overall now begins in earnest.

Higher Inflation in Canada

Canada is an expensive place to live in. With a generally high quality of life comes high taxes, prices, and fees. Canadians pay some of the highest airfare, phone bills, and property taxes in the world. They also pay huge sums for modest real estate, as well all know all too well. Last month, inflation in Canada hit 2.4%, driven by a surge in food prices. Fresh vegetables and meat along with new car prices rose significantly. The only commodity that saw prices fall was gasoline, which recorded a 3.7% decline. Without the fall in energy prices, the inflation rate would have been 2.7%.

There are different definitions of inflation in the economics community. Some economists hold the view that inflation is solely an increase in prices. Others believe that inflation is almost always a direct result of an increase in the money supply driving up prices, more money in circulation means higher prices. In Canada, inflation monitoring, data collection, and targeting is sophisticated and well regarded internationally. The BOC has an inflation target rate of 2%, and is zealous is maintaining this rate. 

What last month’s figures mean is more difficulty for the central bank. On the one hand, economic growth is very modest and pressure to reduce rates to spur demand and lower housing costs is strong. On the other hand, the BOC is mindful of high debt, the need for a normalized rate environment, and now a growing trend of incrementally rising inflation. An interest rate rise now to blunt the modest increases in inflation we are seeing and would honour the BOC’s commitments to 2% inflation, but it would dampen the economy and irritate a number of sectors in need of debt. An election year makes the BOC’s task harder still.

Tembo’s read on all of this is that inflation rising will lower the possibility of a market favoured rate cut. If it continues to build up past 3% expect a rate hike unless the Fed gives in to growing pressures to reduce rates. 

Growing Pressure to Cut Rates

Senior economists from CIBC are making bold predictions on where interest rates will be going. They predict that the BOC will cut rates by 25 basis points next year, in lockstep with the Fed. This would see rates fall from 1.75% to 1.50%, if current rates hold. The rationale for the expectation of a cut follows weakening economic data, slowing growth, and a significant trade and account deficit. Banks have also reported financial data which shows Canadian contributions to their bottom lines seeing little to no growth, with the bulk of profit growth coming from U.S. assets.

In addition, pressure over mortgage stress tests has many believing that lower rates are necessary to give hope to the tens of thousands of prospective home buyers who have now been squeezed out of the market permanently. But the real overhang on this file has been the growing chorus of voices across the border which are demanding that the U.S. Federal Reserve cut rates, pump up the economy with more quantitative easing, and more efforts to stimulate a stagnant U.S. economy. The originator of much of this pressure has been Donald Trump himself. Trump’s language of criticism against the U.S. Fed and Fed Chair Jerome Powell has been consistently scathing for some time now.

Several days ago, the President tweeted that the U.S. stock market and economy would reach even higher levels if the Fed ‘did what China is doing’ by lowering rates and making the U.S. dollar cheaper in relation to competitors to boost exports. He also claimed that the Fed has ‘consistently been raising rates’ on his watch, seeing it as discriminatory. He also has stated the view that the stock market would reach record highs if the Fed lowered rates. At first, many called Trump’s language unprecedented and authoritarian, but now economists, market watchers, and business leaders are echoing his criticism of the Fed and are urging it to supercharge the U.S. economy so it can better compete with China. Lower interest rates are on their way. 

A Recovery That’s Gaining Steam

The latest stats are out and they’re very good for Toronto real estate. Sales last month rose by 19% from May 2018 figures. The number of transactions almost hit 9,900 and are approaching more robust historical averages. Home prices also went up by 3.5%, higher than inflation, and condo prices shot up 5%. The average home price in Toronto is now $838.5K, and the average condo price is $590K. Detached housing prices increased by only 1% to $1.042 million, but were marked by a much lower inventory and number of transactions, thus dampening dynamism.

Prices for condo townhouses are growing at the fastest pace, with a 6% increase recorded last month. Their combination of being relatively affordable and slightly more spacious than traditional condos has afforded them a great deal of attention with prospective homebuyers. Overall, new listings barely grew, and real estate experts claim that there is little capacity for this figure to expand, so further increases in prices and demand are anticipated – especially is sales continue to recover. If we have more positive months like May, expect price growth to rapidly rise once agai
n. To put this very positive month in perspective, the market has now returned to the levels it was at shortly before the introduction of stress tests. This shows how strong the underlying fundamentals of GTA real estate are. 

While we have a long way to go before we see prices and demand for detached houses reach the dizzying levels of March and April 2017, semi-detached and condo townhouse figures are almost at their Spring 17′ peaks. Condo apartment prices almost never fall in Toronto, so positive trends for a quarter or two should get numbers to meet Spring 17′ peaks as well. The $1.2 million average detached home price levels which marked Spring 17′ are a long ways away but not impossible to revive. GTA monthly unit sales reached a high of almost 13,000 in mid 2016, and at the beginning of 2019 were barely at 4,000. If trends continue we should see a few more months of rising sales. Keep in mind that there are growing rumours of an incoming BOC rate cut, in addition, Canada’s big banks will likely work to revive growth in domestic credit and mortgage operations, so incentives and lower rates may be well on their way!

On an Interest Rate Cut

For almost a year, Tembo has repeated a consistent and simple message. Our view was that the Canadian economy relies massively on low interest rates. Higher rates would cripple our nation’s real estate sector, its financial industry, and would raise borrowing costs on strained small and medium sized businesses. Higher rates would also force government across the country at all levels to cut spending and rein in their large deficits. But we also acknowledged that too much easy money for too long a time would weaken the economy, overload it with debt, and incentivize speculative economic activity.

We foresaw that rates would rise rapidly given recent trends as central banks wanted a healthy interest rate cushion in case of a recession. They did. 

And then, just as Tembo predicted, the BOC backed off. Weakening post-Christmas spending activity and a stagnant real estate rebound in early Spring unleashed a torrent of sub-par economic data. That, coupled with a topsy-turvy global macroeconomic and political situation, spooked not just the BOC, but Central Banks around the world. In the U.S., Trump and his Chief Economic Advisor Larry Kudlow berated the Fed for its higher interest rates and its wind down of monetary stimulus. Their sharp criticism forced Fed Chair Jerome Powell to participate in a rare interview where he ex
pressed the view that he could not be fired.

Now, media reports and rumours are spreading outlining the growing possibility of the Fed cutting interest rates by half a percent and intensifying asset purchasing and macroeconomic stimulus. If such a move would occur, the BOC would effectively be boxed in to cut rates here at home as well. A rate cut in Washington would likely raise the value of the Canadian dollar to the benefit of Canadian consumers. But, the growing rumours, if materialized, would mark a potent change of course and policy. How quickly times change. 

On the Return of Low(er) Interest Rates

It’s back to the future time in Canada. The steadily higher interest rate trajectory that was to be the new normal now appears to be officially dead and buried. With the U.S. Fed signalling an end to higher interest rates and trumpeting its newfound zeal and preparedness to accommodate markets, the BOC had no choice but to emulate.

The BOC’s head body, the Governing Council, made the point that an “accommodative policy interest rate continues to be warranted.” The BOC made its point about the need to keep rates stimulative at the same time as it cut its GDP growth forecast for the national economy to 1.2% from 1.7%. Canadian bond yields and the dollar both fell in response to the news. The clarity of the BOC’s words are striking and diametrically opposite from its firm and disciplined messaging when it repeatedly made the point that it needed to raise rates not long ago. It also suggests that there is an anxiety with monetary policy heads and a perception that the economy increasingly requires propping up. 

 

In Tembo’s opinion, the BOC’s announcement is extremely important for all Canadians and particularly for mortgage holders and prospective home buyers. This announcement from the BOC is strong positioning for stimulus, lower rates, and potential buying of stocks or securities to boost prices, reinforce demand, and service the financial sector. 

 

The implication of this announcement outlines the incoming reality of lower rates, cheaper mortgages, and the BOC reinflating the housing bubble back to more dynamic levels. Canadians should prepare for tighter finances to be safe but should also expect money to become cheaper in the months to come.