Emulating the Singapore model to boldly solve Toronto’s Housing crisis

Toronto is in the midst of full-blown housing crisis whose severity will soon stretch and tear at our City’s social fabric, inflame socio-political tensions, further erode our resident’s quality of life, and cripple long term economic potential.

Over two decades of insufficient private home building, historically unprecedented low interest rates, and an ongoing torrent of foreign capital investment have created a market Swiss investment banking giant UBS recently crowned “the world’s second biggest City housing bubble.” We have reached the stage where average housing unit costs have hit $880,840 pushing the price-to-income ratio to 8.2; meaning that average housing costs over eight-times gross household income, almost three times higher than ideal levels.

Buying a home is not the only challenge, with a rental market experiencing a surreal vacancy rate of 1.5% and one-bedroom apartment rent rapidly approaching $2,000. Our housing market is poorly structured and caters to investors, many of whom are foreign. Much of our private building capacity is dedicated to building miniscule, overpriced, shoddy but exceedingly profitable condominiums. Recently released data from Statistics Canada asserts that up to 37.9% of these units are vacant.

Superficial pledges from the political class and incremental, modest increases in investment (HousingTO, TCHC subsidy reform, foreign buyers’ tax) that we have seen in recent years do not address the fundamental underlying dysfunction in our market, and are window dressing measures that will do little to nothing to solve Toronto’s housing crisis. Like Singapore in 1960, Toronto is experiencing a severe shortage in housing, sustained population growth, and untapped economic potential. Singapore’s response to its past housing crisis has been internationally respected.

The country created a Housing and Development Board (HDB) that efficiently and rapidly built quality rental apartments to sell at below market rates to needy citizens. Within 5 years, the HDB built 51,000 apartment units and ended the supply shortfall. Today Singapore has a 90% home ownership rate and over 1 million publicly built, privately owned apartment units. Public housing in Singapore is of very high quality and occupied by all classes, rich and poor. Toronto’s public stock is crumbling despite record investment that will still fall short of needs. We have a waitlist of many tens of thousands who realistically will have to wait decades for affordable housing or will never get it at all. Transferring ownership of our public housing stock to current tenants will permanently transform the lives, shift repair liabilities off the city’s books, and free up resources to decisively and honestly resolve our housing supply crisis.

Canada’s population is exploding

Out country has had an interesting history of immigration stretching back hundreds of years. Throughout the late 19th century, immigration was modest compared to modern levels.

Annual immigration averaged roughly 25-50,000, topping 130,000 in the early 1880s but then falling to 80,000 in the 1890s and dropping precipitously in the late 1890s and early 1900s. A huge surge then occurred from 1902 to right before the start of the first World War. With the prairie provinces Alberta and Saskatchewan admitted to Confederation, elites recognized the urgent need and positive opportunity of settling the Western prairies and activating the agricultural potential of the region. Sizable grants of effectively free prairie land were advertised to European migrants, particularly those from Ukraine, Germany, and Poland, on the condition of long term settlement and productivity inducement. 400,000 people entered the country in 1912, an all time single year record.

In the 1920s and through the Second World War immigration began to fall until it recovered in the post-war boom. Over the last 20 years immigration levels have been high and steadily increasing, with both main political parties supportive of the trend. Average increases varied from 200-250,000, but the current Liberal Government has shown a zeal to increase this number further to 350,000+. Statscan has released data that shows recent increases in population have hit all time historic highs that have topped the traditional pre-WW1 figure of 400,000. From August 2018 to July 2019 the population of our country increased by 531,000. 60% of those immigrants settled in Ontario and British Columbia. These kinds of increases show that our immigration system is moving aggressively to address the most serious demographic issue we have; an aging population. Hopefully many of the new entrants are family sponsorship individuals who have likely been waiting for years to join with family members who are already here.

One can imagine the impact of this population increase on a housing market that is already squeezed from demand pressures. Even if immigration levels fall from this record high, they will still be significant in the years to come. The consensus on high immigration levels is shared by most of the political class, big business, and a significant chunk of the population. This won’t change anytime soon. Record high immigration are the new norm and this will continue to fuel rapid growth and housing prices. 

The BOC holds

Bank of Canada Governor Stephen Poloz surprised no one when he announced that the Bank of Canada’s interest rate would remain unchanged at 1.75%.

As Tembo outlined in our past post, analysts were divided over whether the Bank would emulate U.S. policies and cut rates or maintain them where they are. But the Governor’s carefully analyzed speech was also littered with a number of poignant warnings:

“Canada’s economy will be increasingly tested as trade conflicts and uncertainty persist. In considering the appropriate path for monetary policy, the bank will be monitoring the extent to which the global slowdown spreads beyond manufacturing and investment.”

In other words, we’re in for ever more difficult times. This was an important warning. The Bank followed up the warning by stating that global economic growth would slow this year to its lowest levels since the 08-09 crisis. The Bank acknowledged that its counterparts around the world have all eased interest rates but it is proud to be standing firm on its decision. The Bank is giving itself wiggle room in case the economy slows into a recession and the slowdown extends past the manufacturing and investment elements of the economy.

It’s important to note that Central Banks around the world are not only lowering rates but are intensifying their market intervention by buying assets and extending additional forms of credit to their member banks. In the United States, the repo frenzy Tembo touched upon continues. This signals that there is some leak in the international financial system, some lack of liquidity that needs to be plugged by cheap and rapidly accessible liquid capital. As we’ve noted before, a repo is when the Fed sells a financial product (bond) to big banks only to repurchase them shortly thereafter at a higher price, thus injecting the difference directly into the financial system. This is particularly effective in reducing short term interest rates in the money market.

Canada is in a stronger position than its international counterparts, as our BOC is not stimulating the economy to similar extents, but it is staying cautious and preparing for the worst.

Rate Decision Coming Up This Week

The BOC will be announcing its next move on rates on the week of October 28th. Whether they stay even or go down is a big question, but they most certainly won’t be going up anytime soon.

If rates do go down, expect the recovery and renewed dynamism in the GTA real estate market to be reinforced, and given added momentum. If they stay the same, the higher price and strong demand trends will stay healthy. Most experts predict that the BOC won’t cut rates. The number is low as is and the economic overall is perceived to be in very good shape. While BOC policy generally does not diverge much from the monetary policy of the Fed, many market watchers expect that the Fed’s recent push to lower rates and revive QE (quantitative easing) won’t be necessary in Canada. Unlike the U.S., Canadian politicians rarely criticize or even talk about the BOC at all. At the height of the very high interest rates of the mid 90s, the Bank was politely scolded, and politicians sent letters asking for rate relief. Lately in the U.S., as many of us know, the President is openly at war with Fed Chair Powell; his own appointee. The C.D. Howe Institute, an elite, neoliberal think-tank based on Bay St. is calling for the BOC to hold off on rate cuts now and to wait until early 2020 for cheaper money.

In Washington, the consensus appears to point toward a 3rd consecutive cut in rates by Chair Powell this week. U.S. economic data is weakening, with manufacturing and housing showing slowdowns and the bulk of now much more subdued GDP growth dominated by consumers maxing out their credit cards and increased government spending. The Fed has also quietly began to increase its book of financial assets, and has long since ended its previously strong commitment to incremental reductions of its massive balance sheet. This basically that the Fed is once again buying assets, intervening in the market, and artificially raising asset prices while providing cheap money stimulus to Banks. There is growing repo activity, where the Fed is selling government bonds to investment only to buy them back within days at higher prices – effectively providing the buyers with excess capital that is not loaned. Repo activity is oversubscribed lately and is running the many tens of billions of dollars. This suggests a need for capitalization among U.S. financial organizations. 

As Tembo predicted, the once high GDP growth achieved months ago by a Trump tax cut and low interest rate stimulus is now falling back into traditional territory. If Powell does cut rates again, it will signal that the Fed is both concerned at U.S. economic data and also sensitive to the pressure and open criticism it is facing from a President who refuses to temper his language and who revels in his own bombast. Under Trump, the U.S. federal deficit is climbing again and is now close to the $1 trillion dollar mark. If the U.S. goes into a protracted and deep recession, it will have little wiggle room, little capacity for sustainable government fiscal stimulus, and almost no room to lower rates. A recession anytime soon would likely spell serious political trouble for a President who is staking his political future on a booming stock market, stable economy, and gradual, albeit ephemeral foreign policy retrenchment. 

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.