Shortly after we remarked most recently on the unprecedented Canadian housing bubble that has migrated from Vancouver to Toronto, Gluskin Sheff's Chief Economist David Rosenberg joined the growing chorus of calls for government intervention into the Toronto housing market. In an interview on BNN, Rosenberg, who correctly called the U.S. housing bubble in 2005 when still at Merrill Lynch, said the massive deviation from historical norms has him drawing comparisons between the two situations.
“This bubble is on par with what we had in the States back in ’05, ’06, ’07,” he said. “We have to actually take a look at the situation. The housing market here is in a classic price bubble. If you don’t acknowledge that, you have your head in the sand.”
Rosenberg warned unchecked increases in home prices are becoming a social issue. “It’s not an equity, it’s not a bond -- it’s where people live,” he said. “Where home prices are in Toronto, they absorb 13 years of average family income. That is completely abnormal. We’ve never seen this before.”
“We’re out of equilibrium, and when we’re out of equilibrium, or there’s some sort of market failure, are there grounds there for government intervention? I think even the most ardent libertarian would say ‘yes'." Rosenberg said there are a trio of levers the government can pull to cool down the market. Authorities can address supply, which he said has already been “kiboshed.” Interest rates can be raised, but Rosenberg doesn’t believe the Bank of Canada will do that. Or new policy can be drafted to address the prevalence of speculation.
“These are not prices driven by the local fundamentals -- this is the foreign buyer coming in,” Rosenberg said. “Toronto has really emerged as a first-class city, not just politically, not just culturally and economically, but also in terms of being a major financial centre. But if you’re going to ask me at this stage, ‘do we need to approach taxation of this capital coming in differently to curb the demand?’ [That’s] absolutely right.”
And just to make his position clear, Rosenberg also an op-ed in Canada's Financial Post on the topic, titled simply enough:
"Make no mistake, the Toronto real estate market is in a bubble of historic proportions"
by David Rosenberg
The concerns about froth in Toronto’s housing market are not likely to subside given the sticker-shock from the latest report from the Toronto Real Estate Board.
As per the March report, the average single-detached house in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) sold for $1,214,422 last month up from $910,375 in March of last year — that is a 33 per cent YoY surge, and follows a 16 per cent run-up over the prior 12 months.
Whatever the term is for an acceleration in an already parabolic curve, well, that is what we have on our hands today.
And it isn’t just detached homes seeing this degree of rapid price appreciation — the benchmark single-family home selling price was up 29 per cent YoY, the benchmark townhouse price was up 28 per cent and the condo/apartment composite was up 24 per cent.
This is a bubble of historic proportions.
Not only to have home prices in the GTA now absorb an unprecedented 13 years of median family income, but to have 30 per-cent-ish run-ups against a backdrop of a 2 per cent inflation rate, wages that are barely going up 2 per cent as well, and nominal GDP growth of around 4 per cent. This should put 30 per cent into some sort of perspective when we conclude that what we have on our hands is a near three standard deviation event.
That alone qualifies as a bubble — if you don’t like that term, then call it a giant sud. In the past, Toronto home prices went up at an annual rate of 4 per cent in real terms, in the past year they have surged by nearly 30 per cent.
Some context, however, is needed here.
First, this aggressive increase in home prices in Canada’s most populous city has come (at least in part) due to strong competition among potential buyers for comparatively scant homes for sale.
Active listings of homes available for sale in Toronto plunged 35.2 per cent YoY in March, which means that the months’ supply of houses on the market is a miniscule 0.65, down from 1.18 last March — for reference, a “balanced market” sees a months’ supply figure around 6.0. The average home that was put up for sale remained on the market for just 10 days, down from 16 days a year ago.
These measures of “tightness” in the market are without precedent — not even the red-hot late-1980s bubble experience could ever compete with today’s backdrop.
As well, the sales-to-new listings ratio sits well into “sellers’ market” territory at 70.8 per cent, which compares to 69.4 per cent a year ago — a ratio between 40 per cent and 60 per cent is considered indicative of a “balanced market.”
No wonder nobody wants to list their home! It’s become such a valuable asset.
But you see, this is where the danger comes in: when people start to view their house as some investment as opposed to a home — a place to raise the kids and play with them in the backyard.
A house is an asset indeed, but should never be compared to a stock or a bond or even other investable properties. It is a place to live.
Unlike a stock, which you can sell anytime and tuck away the winnings, if you sell your house, well, you still need a roof over your head. A stock with a dividend gives you an income stream, as does a fixed-income instrument. Unless you are a landlord, your house is burning cash (utilities, property taxes, maintenance), not bringing in cash.
So there are indeed some supply and demand fundamentals that are underpinning prices. Insofar as the demand is rising because people think they are investing in something hot just because of the accelerating momentum, well, these people are going to end up being pretty big losers. For if the government catches a whiff that it is now speculative fever that is dominating the uber-hot housing market, well that could very well elicit a response (as in capital gains taxes for those who sell within a year or two).
At some point, a correction would be very healthy because on the other side, owners of homes will then realize that no, they did not win some lottery, and will finally be willing to start listing their property, especially those who deep down want to sell (it could well be that the move-up buyers would like to sell but can’t afford that mansion of their dreams).
Not to mention first-time buyers who do not have the income for a down payment that any lender would consider appropriate. After all, we have hit the bizarre stage where a typical home now (and we are talking about a bungalow in Pape Village, not exactly an estate on Warren Road) would absorb 13 years of median household income.
Not even in the late 1980s, did housing get this expensive on this basis, and we know all too well how the Bank of Canada ultimately reacted and what happened next. Stephen Poloz is definitely no John Crow — though things can always change.
One caveat should be noted because what is different this time around (oh, how I hate using that phrase) is that Toronto has emerged as a world-class city and the foreign buyer is clearly having an impact.
So while Toronto residential real estate is indeed expensive for the locals, it is far less so for foreign investors, especially for Americans who can buy Canadian assets at a 25 per cent discount from a currency perspective.
In the mid to late 1980s, Toronto did not have the Rogers Center. It did not have the Raptors. It had no decent hotel outside of the Four Seasons and the Windsor Arms. Truly great restaurants were not to be found (unless you want to count Winston’s!). There was no Drake. And Toronto FC was not in existence. Not to mention there was very little in the way of a theater district.
While the separatist threat in Quebec gave Toronto the mantle of being Canada’s financial center back in 1976, the city was never seriously viewed as a global player in this respect until very recently. With more than 250,000 employed in the financial services sector, Toronto has very quietly emerged as the second largest financial hub in North America (after New York). Of the 84 cities surveyed in the 2015 Global Financial Centres Index, Toronto ranked 8th!
So while prices may seem a little nutty, it is important to note that Toronto is a major financial, economic and cultural centre, and when compared to its peers globally, prices appear far less crazy, too.
This doesn’t make the current price action justified based on local income fundamentals, but based on the foreign incomes of those wanting to establish a toehold in a stable Toronto amidst a sea of global instability, the prices are not that much out of whack.
As per data compiled by Global Property Guide, Toronto home prices on a U.S. dollar per square metre basis rank just 14th in the world, well behind the likes of London, New York, Paris and Tokyo.
And at the same time, if you are a family in say, Brooklyn Heights looking to buy property in Toronto it would only absorb six years of income; and if you reside in Santa Monica and feel like dipping your toes in the Toronto real estate market, it would only take up four years of your annual median take-home pay. The same (four years) holds true for those wealthy enough to be living in Knightsbridge.
You see, when Toronto home prices are measured against incomes in other places of the world, it is not nearly as onerous (especially in Canadian dollar terms).
In other words, many well-heeled foreigners can far better afford what the locals can’t afford here, and housing in recent years has truly become in internationally-traded asset class (though I wouldn’t recommend ripping out the foundation and exporting the structure anywhere).
So it goes without saying that if the name of the game is to tame the flame then have the foreign investor share the blame. A tax on foreign transactions, as was already done in Vancouver, seems like a pretty good idea. And the government can at the very least use the revenues to either provide greater tax incentives to build and/or provide tax relief for the low/mid income entry-level buyer who is struggling to cobble together the funds for a down payment.
So yes, in this sense, I would be advocating a Robin Hood style of economic policy.
Indeed, what may be needed is a very progressive tax on foreign buying of local residential real estate in the bid to cool demand and reverse the exponential surge in home prices — a surge that is creating tremendous social problems by crowding out young families (or individuals) from chasing the homeownership dream (a typical response is for these folks is to go out and buy a condo instead, but the reality is that average prices here have also skyrocketed 24 per cent in the past year and are in a bubble of their own).
Everyone says that the Bank of Canada cannot raise interest rates to curb the excess demand because of the deleterious effect this would have on the economy writ large (for example, taking the Canadian dollar back up to or above 80 cents which would thwart our export competitiveness which has become a longstanding role of the central bank).
Be that as it may, the home price surge in the GTA over the past year has impaired homeowner affordability to such an extent that it is basically the equivalent of the Bank of Canada having raised rates 150 basis points — actually a 200 basis point increase if you were to look at what home prices have done to affordability ratios over the past two years (so you can’t have it both ways; the price action is basically equivalent to having five-year mortgage rates closer to 5.75 per cent than the actual posted rate of 3.75 per cent).
Barring a bold move by the government to bring home prices to levels consistent with domestic economic fundamentals as opposed to income levels from well-heeled buyers from the U.S., China, and Europe, maybe it is time for the Bank of Canada to start playing a role and follow the Fed on a gradual rising interest rate path.