Wheels up

BROKE modified

A GreaterFool rule oft mentioned is this: buy what appreciates, rent what depreciates. Hence, it’s okay to buy a house if at the right price, in the right place. But it’s almost always dumb to cash-buy a new car.

You’d think most people would figure this out. Instead of shoveling over thirty grand for a soul-sucking minivan, they’d be far better of stuffing that money into their TFSA and investing it, and letting the dealer or the bank give them the car. After all, in ten years the TFSA money should double to $60,000. The minivan will be worth (maybe) ten thousand.

Well, seems this is academic for most folks, anyway, since they don’t have any money. Car loans have exploded, and it’s no coincidence this has happened concurrently with a housing boom and a crappy job market. Real estate continues to skim off huge hunks of household cash flow, leaving precious little for wheels, investing, or a Plan B.

Moody’s Investor Service has just tallied this. Ugly. Seven years ago car loans totaled $16.2 billion, which is a giant pile of money. Today that pile is $64 billion – an increase of 300%, or 20% a year. But it gets worse.

As you know, these loans now have terms of eight or nine years, which exceeds most marriages and is longer than the lifespan of most Great Danes and almost all Kias. And despite a stuttering economy, the combination of cheap rates and ridiculously-long pay-back periods has created a boom in car sales. The dealers are having a banner year. Plus, says Moody’s, this also has people buying more expensive rides, so they can roll around and look like rockstar realtors.

So, record car sales. Record car debt. Oh, and record car loan delinquencies.

They jumped more than 13% last year, compared to a drop in missed payments on credit cards and lines of credit. “Credit losses have been low, but could rise quickly in an adverse scenario of unemployment increases or rapidly rising interest rates,” says the rating agency. “If the economy takes a turn for the worst, we could see these loans becoming problematic for the banks.”

Well, let’s turn to jobs for a minute. There must be a correlation between the labour market and an unprecedented demand for consumer credit. A constant run-up in debt would suggest most families are not bringing in enough income to sate their spending habits, which would support the Bank of Canada’s warning that household finances suck (a technical monetary term).

This is a thesis Randall Bartlett is proving. He’s a senior economist at TD Bank which has unveiled a new measure of the job market. Finally. The StatsCan monthly employment roller-coaster has turned into a bit of a joke among the biker-economists I hang with. The swings are so wild as to cast doubt on the validity of the data, with abysmal losses being replaced by flowery gains in a matter of weeks.

So the bank’s launched a Labour Market Indicator to try and get a truer picture on who’s working, and (as importantly) the nature of unemployment. If this is a better tool, we’re a little more screwed than we all thought. Says the bank:

  • “The Canadian labour market is currently experiencing more weakness than is implied by … the headline unemployment rate alone, and has been for nearly two years.”
  • About 20% of all the people out of work these days have been that way for at least six months – the long-term unemployed.
  • The bank says the numbers of people in this group jumped during the GFC, which is to be expected – but that levels have not come down since 2009.
  • Meanwhile the number of working-age Canadians (between 25 and 54) in the workforce is on the decline, down 2% in two years. This, says TD, “is a characteristic of a weak labour market.”
  • So while the official jobless rates is 6.8%, the bank says it’s actually about 7.2%. In the US, by the way, unemployment is now 5.9%.

And Bartlett confirms what this pathetic blog has started for a couple of years – incomes have flatlined. Wage growth of about 2% is running a little below the inflation mark, which means most families are spending more and actually making less. That’s supported by the Canadian Payroll Association, which claims over 50% of us could not last a week past one missed paycheque.

This is what you get when a country opts for a condo economy. Massive spending on housing and consumer goods, supported by an historic increase in debt because a weak jobs market and zero income growth mean Joe Frontporch is treading water. Our manufacturing base has shrunk and a quarter of the economy is now centred on real estate. Were it not for low rates that allow so many to meet their gargantuan monthlies, we’d be pooched. And none of this is coincidental.

Tell me how it works out well.

It works.

HOMES modified

The tale of two nations. Part deux. This is certainly getting interesting.

The average moist virginal homebuyer in Canada is 29 years old, just emerged pasty and blinking from his parents’ basement, and plans to spend $510,000 in Vancouver and over $400,000 in Toronto to buy real estate. Almost all of these buyers take high-ratio loans, since they lack a 20% downpayment, and end up paying CMHC insurance – which can add $15,000 to that Van price.

But despite the fact this amounts to an awesome debt loan, the home ownership rate among the twentysomething set (according to BeeMo) is 50%. That’s down from the past level of 55%, mostly because houses are so stupid expensive.

In Canada the average place costs more than $400,000, says CREA. In the States, the average is $176,500.

So, you’d imagine US kids would be swarming to real estate, since mortgage costs are roughly equal (thirty-year loans are 4% in the US, but tax-deductible), as are big-city incomes. But you’d be wrong. Home ownership among this group hit 40.6% as the housing boom was ending in 2007, then fell to 34% last year and is now just 29%. Of new-home purchasers, just 16% are first-timers.

What could possibly account for this huge gap between the Yanks and the Maples?

Well, many US kids saw their parents get their butts roasted in the housing correction that bottomed about four years ago. The US middle class was vacuumed for about $6 trillion, and millions of families found that having a one-asset investment strategy, leveraged over a mountain of debt, was a toxic idea. A whole nation of house-hornies discovered real estate does not always go up.

But that’s background. More salient reasons American millennials are renting are (a) student debt, (b) higher youth unemployment and (c) a lack of affordable properties. Sound familiar? So, we still don’t have an answer. Until we look at lending practices.

To get a mortgage in the States, you typically need a credit score of 750. Yikes. Not only that, but most lenders usually won’t dole out any funds unless a buyer can cough up a downpayment of 20%. Compare that with Canada, of course, where 5% is all you need, and the bank will give you at least half of that for showing up.

Of course we also have teaser-rate and adjustable-rate mortgages, which are now banned in the States. That’s how banks here sucker in people with 1.99% or 2.2% two-year terms. It’s also worth remembering the Canada Interest Act dictates all mortgage terms have to expire after five years, so you cannot lock into a 4% rate for the next three decades, as so many Americans are doing currently. (Refinancings have jumped 23% as bond yields fell.)

The result is obvious.

Half of our kids buy houses and the average price is $408,795. South of us, in a similar country, less than a third can buy – and homes cost $176,500.

This is no coincidence. Real estate doesn’t cost more here because it’s better-built, or since we have a larger population and a better climate, or because people in Seattle make half what Vancouverites earn. Prices are higher because houses are easy to buy, and debt flows.

It’s been deliberate. Pushing real estate’s been a key policy initiative of governments which are financially strapped, strangled by election cycles and bereft of other ideas. By pushing citizens into borrowing and spending massively, politicians don’t need to pare spending, enact stimulus programs or reform taxation, especially when the economy turns south. They just get the fool voters to do it. Simple. It works.

So we got forty-year amortizations and zero down payments, along with first-time homebuyer tax credits. This was layered over the Home Buyer’s Plan allowing RRSPs to be raided, and provincial grants to encourage newbies. Land transfer taxes are slashed or eliminated for the virgins and, of course, CMHC wipes away all lender risk for mortgages up to 95% of a property’s value. We now have an entire banking sector that’s grown fat on giving home loans to people who have been too challenged, lazy, undisciplined or juvenile to actually save any money.

The result?

Unaffordable houses and record debt.

Genius country, eh?