“If the slowdown in the housing market worsens, Mr. Flaherty will be blamed as he was after effectively killing income trusts in a surprise announcement made on Halloween night in 2006. The Minister, and his government, will be accused of being bad economic managers if the housing sector falters. But what people will really be saying is: “How dare you, Mr. Flaherty?”
People are funny about financial assets that soar in value, be they income trusts or houses. They see them as being special in some way, a phenomenon of nature that should be left untouched so as to allow folks to make some serious money.
But assets that soar in value are the ones we need to worry about most. Everything in finance is cyclical, which means there are ups and downs. The more an asset rises in price, the more vulnerable it is to a nasty pullback that causes damage both to individuals and the economy.
Mr. Flaherty moved to cool the overheated housing market last summer by capping the maximum amortization period at 25 years for people with down payments of less than 20 per cent. The impact of this move so far has been negative, but not alarmingly so. House sales were off 17.4 per cent in December on a year-over-year basis, but prices were up 1.6 per cent, on average.
Mr. Flaherty snuffed out trusts by announcing the government would start taxing them in 2011. In response, most trusts converted into dividend-paying corporations that pay far less cash than they used to. The complaining from investors about the demise of trusts was long and loud, although it never seemed to hurt the Conservatives in an election.
The blowback if housing falls hard will be worse because homes are widely believed to be a special kind of asset that benefits the entire population. It’s an easy impression to come away with after watching the rules shift over the years for home-buying down payments.
Decades ago, buyers had to put down a minimum 10 per cent and amortize over 25 years at most. The minimum down payment briefly fell to zero a few years ago and now it’s 5 per cent. Amortization periods expanded to as much as 40 years for a time, before being reeled back.
Housing’s stature has been further inflated by its cultural and economic importance. Multiple TV channels celebrate housing, and a fair chunk of the retail industry is directly home related (think of HomeSense, Home Depot, Home Outfitters, Home Hardware, Sears Home and the like). Also, housing-related spending accounts for close to 20 per cent of economic output. What’s good for housing is thought to be good for all of us.
Mostly, though, housing is thought to be special because of its value as an investment over the past couple of decades. As mentioned in a recent column (online at tgam.ca/Dlfb), housing prices nationally have risen about 5.6 per cent annually since 1980.
After five years of up and down stock markets, Canadians have become very possessive about their gains in housing. If housing prices plunge, they’ll be looking for someone to blame. That would be Mr. Flaherty, even if he was just doing his job.”
– from ‘First income trusts, now housing? Careful, Mr. Flaherty’, Rob Carrick, The Globe and Mail, 16 Jan 2013.
We like the way that this article emphasizes the ‘special’ place that housing has achieved through the 10 year national housing bubble. Nowhere more special than in our own Vancouver, of course.
A few thoughts:
1. Flaherty’s mortgage rule changes in 2012 were simply a slight tightening of restrictions that he himself had allowed to become far too loose in prior years.
2. When Flaherty announced the income trust rule changes in 2006, he exempted one class of income trust – those in real estate!
3. In trying to quantify the difference between the effects of changing the tax laws of income trusts, and tightening mortgage rules, it would be good to know how many Canadian’s had how much of their net-worth in income trusts in 2006. (Can any readers direct us to such data?) My hunch is that, even though that move was significant (and caused a massive brouhaha), it doesn’t come anywhere close to the magnitude of significance of mortgage tightening. Over 70% of Canadians own their homes; a large percentage have the majority of their net-worth in their homes; a significant percentage have their net-worth highly leveraged to the market value of their homes. In addition there are innumerable knock-on economic effects of a falling housing market.
The unwinding of the RE spec mania will completely eclipse memories of the 2006 income trust tax changes.