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11 Jan

Home Equity Loan Surge


Posted by: Kimberly Walker

Home-equity loans surge twice as fast as mortgage growth: BoC

Paul Vieira, Financial Post · Monday, Jan. 10, 2011

OTTAWA — Home-equity lines of credit surged 170% over the past decade, or twice the rate of mortgage growth, a Bank of Canada deputy governor said Monday as she acknowledged keeping interest rates low “create their own risks” for the economy as they pertain to household debt levels.

Agathe Côté said home equity loans, whose popularity grew as housing prices climbed and interest rates remained low, helped Canadians buy goods, such as additional real estate, or pay off higher-interest consumer debt. So-called HELOCs — secured loans that carry lower rates of interest compared to unsecured financing — now account for 12% of all household debt, which as of the third quarter was at a record high, or the equivalent to 148% of disposable income.

“If there were a sudden weakening in the Canadian housing sector, it could have sizable spillover effects on other areas of the economy, such as consumption, given the high debt loads of some Canadian households,” she said in remarks delivered to the Canadian Club of Kingston, Ont.

Data collected on behalf of the central bank suggest roughly one-third of the financing made available via HELOCs are used to pay off other debt, while another 20% is used for stock-market investments. The roughly 50% of financing remaining, Ms. Côté said, is used on current consumption, and renovating or purchasing other properties.

This real estate-related spending has a domino effect, she added, as it can accelerate the increase in house prices, “reinforcing the growth in collateral values and access to additional borrowing, thus leading to a rise in household spending.”

Analysts say this type of cycle could spell trouble for Canada’s growth prospects in an environment of rising rates and softer housing prices. That’s why the Bank of Canada is pressing individuals and lenders to proceed with caution now in terms of taking on or issuing debt.

“The issue is not whether we are going to see a wave of defaults,” said Benjamin Tal, deputy chief economist at CIBC World Markets. “It is how higher interest rates will lead to a softening in credit demand, and then consumer spending.”

In a recent interview, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty singled out the rapid-fire growth in home-equity loans as a cause for concern and that was one area the federal government may target should it move to try to cap household debt levels.

Since the trough of the recession, household credit has grown about twice as fast as personal disposable income.

Meanwhile, Ms. Côté tried to address the dilemma the central bank faces as it continues to warn about record levels of household debt while keeping its benchmark policy rate at extraordinarily low levels in the face of a still-fragile recovery. Bank of Canada policy is to set interest rates in an effort to reach or maintain 2% inflation.

“Some have asked if increasing interest rates poses such a threat to households, why raise them? Yet others have asked if household debt is such a concern, why not raise rates and discourage borrowing?” she said, noting rates are set to achieve or maintain 2% inflation. Annual headline inflation was 2% in November, although the core rate, which strips out volatile-priced items, fell to 1.4% in the month.

“The bank recognizes that low interest rates, while necessary to achieve our inflation target, create their own risks,” said Ms. Côté, who was appointed deputy governor last June.