Greetings to my readers.
There will be no post this week because I am currently attending TMG The Mortgage Group’s national sales conference in Costa Rica.
The Bank of Canada meets this Wednesday. The consensus does not expect the Bank to move its policy rate so all eyes will be on its quarterly Monetary Policy Report and accompanying press statement.
In next week’s post I’ll offer my take.
In today’s post I offer my predictions of where our fixed and variable mortgage rates are headed in 2020. (For those who are interested, here is link to my 2019 forecast, which has aged fairly well.)
We begin 2020 with an unusual backdrop for mortgage rates. The Government of Canada (GoC) bond-yield curve, which our fixed mortgage rates are priced on, remains partially inverted.
As I explain in detail in this post, this is a phenomenon that doesn’t occur very often. In normal markets, longer term interest rates are higher than shorter term rates. A yield-curve inversion happens when the yields offered on longer-term bonds drop below the yields offered on shorter-term bonds (see chart).
In the current context, our yield curve is inverted essentially because the Bank of Canada (BoC) and the bond market have differing views on where our economy is headed.
At its last meeting of 2019, the Bank of Canada (BoC) continued to offer a relatively optimistic outlook for our growth prospects and determined that holding its policy rate steady at 1.75% was necessary in order to contain inflationary pressures. Conversely, the bond market spent 2019 bidding longer-term GoC bond yields lower, based on the belief that our economic growth will slow and that inflationary pressures will ease. (For anyone keeping score, the bond market has a much better forecasting track record than the BoC.)
Here are some examples of where their outlooks currently differ:
Last week Prime Minister Trudeau asked his federal Finance Minister Bill Morneau to “review and consider recommendations from financial agencies related to making the borrower stress test more dynamic.”
That open-ended mandate will lead to broad speculation about what revisions Mr. Morneau may propose. Here are my related thoughts.
First a quick review. The mortgage stress test requires federally regulated lenders to qualify mortgage borrowers using a higher interest rate than the one they will actually be paying.
For example, if you purchase a property today with a down payment of 20% and want to borrow at a five-year fixed rate of 3%, your lender will qualify your application using a rate that is the greater of today’s stress-test rate, which is currently 5.19%, or your contract rate plus 2%, which in this example works out to 5%. (Borrowers with down payments of less than 20% are simply qualified at the stress-test rate.)
Bluntly put, the stress test saved our hottest regional housing markets from over-heating.
The Bank’s accompanying statement came across as cautiously optimistic, and the bond futures market responded by decreasing the odds of a January rate cut from 20% to less than 10%.
Here are five highlights from the BoC’s latest statement, along with my thoughts.
- The Bank sees “nascent evidence that the global economy is stabilizing.”
“Nascent evidence” is about as soft an endorsement as you can get. And stabilizing how? About three-quarters of the world’s economies are growing at a rate of 2% or less. Here is a look at the third-quarter annualized GDP growth rates of the world’s five largest economies:
- U.S.: 2.1% (much slower pace than in 2018)
- China: 6% (slowest GDP growth rate in ten years)
- Japan: 0.2% (consensus forecast was 0.8%)
- Germany: 0.5% (falling steadily since the start of 2018)
- UK: 1% (weakest GDP growth rate since Q1 2010)
If the world economy is stabilizing, it is doing so at a growth-rate level that I would classify as one heartbeat above “coma.”
Here are the highlights from the latest data:
- In real terms, our GDP grew by 0.3% during the quarter, which was down from 0.9% in Q2.
- Business investment led the way, advancing 2.6% and marking its best tally since the fourth quarter of 2017.
- Housing investment also increased by 3.2%, its fastest pace since Q1 2012.
- Household spending grew by 0.4% in Q3, while household disposable income rose by 0.9%. Relatedly, our household saving rate increased from 1.7% in Q2 to 3.2% in Q3, its highest level since 2015. That said, 3.2% is still considerably lower than our long-term average saving rate of 7.59% and well below the current U.S. saving rate of 7.8%.
- Export sales volumes declined by 0.4% in Q3 (after increasing by 3.1% in the Q2). Our export sales growth has now slowed to 1.5% on an annualized basis, and that number has dropped in three of the past four quarters.
- Our GDP grew by only 0.1% in each of August and September, offering no sign of improving momentum as we head into the fourth quarter.
The Bank of Canada (BoC) had forecast third-quarter annualized GDP growth of 1.5% in its latest Monetary Policy Report (so the headline result came in lower than its forecast), but the result was a little higher than the 1.2% annualized rate the consensus predicted.
The Bank of Canada (BoC) also closely monitors three other measures of core inflation (CPI-trim, CPI-median and CPI-common) and these were also essentially unchanged for the month. All three still hover very close to the Bank’s 2% target.
On the same day, BoC Governor Stephen Poloz spoke at the Ontario Securities Commission and said that “we think we’ve got monetary conditions about right given the situation”, citing strength in housing and services and noting that inflation is currently on target.
If he’s referring to the current situation, no argument here, but after listening to the Bank repeat over and over that it must anticipate the road ahead, especially given that inflation itself is a lagging indicator, I think its stand-pat approach could prove costly in the fullness of time.
Today, approximately one-quarter of the global bond market trades at a negative yield. (When a bond has a negative yield, it means that investors will end up with less than they started with by the end of the term, effectively paying the borrower to store their money.)
Short-term rates have also fallen. Economist David Rosenberg calculates that the world’s central banks have now cut a total of 2,200 basis points off of their policy rates thus far in 2019 – and I don’t have to remind any Canadian with a variable-rate mortgage that thus far, the Bank of Canada (BoC) isn’t included in that group.
Of course, today’s fixed mortgage rates don’t come with any guarantees that they will prove cheaper than variable rates over their full term. Let’s not forget that variable rates have outperformed fixed rates about 90% of the time over the past twenty-five years.
Those are some stacked odds to bet against.
But borrowers are used to receiving an upfront discount for taking on variable-rate risk, and when that’s not available, almost everyone opts for the stability of locked-in payments. (The savviest of these borrowers are also ensuring that their fixed-rate mortgages come with reasonable penalties, which allow them the flexibility to refinance if rates drop further, as I wrote in this recent post.)
What about existing variable-rate borrowers? Should they lock in a fixed rate now?
That means variable mortgage rates, which move in direct response to BoC policy-rate changes, will remain at their current levels for the time being. But the Bank’s increasingly cautious assessment of our economic landscape and focus on downside risks have the consensus now predicting that it will likely cut in the near future.
The BoC’s more dovish tone had an immediate impact on bond yields, and by association, our fixed mortgage rates.
The five-year Government of Canada (GoC) bond yield, which our five-year fixed mortgage rates are priced on, dropped by 0.15% shortly after the Bank’s latest announcement. If the GoC bond yield falls much farther, five-year fixed rates should move lower (subject to the old saw about lenders taking the elevator when they raise rates and the stairs when they lower them).
Here is a summary of my take on the BoC’s latest statement and its accompanying Monetary Policy Report (MPR), which is the Bank’s quarterly assessment of economic conditions both at home and abroad.
With that in mind, in today’s post I had initially planned to revisit the age-old fixed-versus-variable rate question, which is always a popular topic. But in the current environment where our bond-yield curve remains inverted and fixed rates are lower than variable rates, that question seems less compelling. Simply put, when borrowers aren’t receiving a discount to take on variable-rate risk, they just aren’t inclined to do it.
Today the vast majority of buyers are opting for a five-year fixed rate. In addition to having rates that are lower than equivalent variable rates, they are now also cheaper than almost all other fixed-rate terms.
While this current backdrop has simplified the range of options for borrowers, it has not levelled the playing field. Five-year fixed-rate mortgages are not created equal. To wit, in the current environment, mortgages that offer maximum flexibility have proven far more economical than alternatives that may be lower priced but are less flexible.
Here is an example that illustrates why flexibility is so valuable:
Investors, tired of the paltry returns in our low-interest-rate environment, have been selling off safe-haven assets, like U.S. Treasuries and Government of Canada (GoC) bonds, and shifting into riskier investments, like equities. The selling of these bonds causes their prices to fall and their yields, which our fixed mortgage rates are priced on, to rise.
Financial markets are ruled by either fear or greed. While greed has once again become the dominant sentiment, I believe this recent trend is based on misplaced optimism.
Last week’s market-moving news centred around the announcement of phase one of a U.S./China trade deal, but a closer look at the details leads me to conclude that any associated boost will likely be short lived.
Despite this, some market watchers speculate that the Bank of Canada (BoC) will delay cutting its policy rate for fear that it will fuel increased borrowing and accelerate house-price appreciation (which has picked up on its own lately).
This theory is fundamentally flawed for two reasons:
- A BoC rate cut only affects variable mortgage rates, and few borrowers are opting for variable rates in the current environment.
The Canadian yield curve is still inverted, meaning that short-term interest rates are higher than longer-term interest rates, and as such, just about everyone is opting for fixed rates now. Consider that today, the average five-year variable mortgage rate is priced about 0.50% higher than its five-year fixed-rate equivalent.
Given that gap, current variable rates won’t be remotely attractive to most borrowers at least until the BoC has made its third 0.25% cut from today’s levels. The vast majority of borrowers aren’t likely to take on variable-rate risk without receiving an initial discount to the available fixed-rate alternatives.
The U.S. economy is showing clear signs of slowing, and the bond futures market is now assigning a 76% probability that the U.S. Federal Reserve will cut its policy rate by another 0.25% when it next meets on October 30 and 70% odds that it will lower by another 0.25% when it meets on January 29.
The Fed’s actions matter to anyone keeping an eye on Canadian mortgage rates.
First, the policy rates at the Fed and the Bank of Canada (BoC) are basically now equal, and that increases the pressure for the BoC to match any additional Fed cuts (as I wrote about in detail in this recent post). If the BoC lowers, Canadian variable-rate borrowers would see their first rate drop in more than four years.
Secondly, the Fed’s actions have an indirect but significant impact on U.S. treasury yields, and Government of Canada (GoC) bond yields, which our fixed mortgage rates are priced on, usually move in lockstep with their U.S. equivalents. For the most recent example, check out the movements in the 5- year U.S. treasury and GoC bond yields over the past 30 days:
Given that, in today’s post I will turn my attention to a key issue for voters in our upcoming federal election: housing affordability.
Each political party is now offering solutions to address today’s affordability challenges, and last Tuesday I joined TV journalist Carole McNeil on CBC News for a Canada Votes segment that focused on different housing-policy issues and proposals (which you can watch here).
In today’s post, instead of evaluating everyone else’s ideas, I will offer my own view by highlighting five mortgage and real-estate-related changes that are most likely to improve housing affordability (without unduly increasing household debt levels in the bargain).
Last Wednesday the U.S. Federal Reserve cut its policy rate by another 0.25%, dropping it down to a range between 2.00% and 1.75%. In its accompanying statement, the Fed conveyed both optimism and caution.
Before we examine the Fed’s latest statement, let’s recap why the Fed’s actions matter to anyone keeping an eye on Canadian mortgage rates.