“Where banks once sent human appraisers to assess a home’s value and determine whether to provide a mortgage for it, the banking industry – encouraged by the federal government’s own Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) – had largely converted to a faster and cheaper system of automated underwriting, using computerized models to determine how much money to safely lend. The models weren’t perfect, but they were close enough. And what did it matter? House prices always seemed to be going up in Canada anyway.”
CMHC’s automated underwriting program – called Emili – had been stamping its approval on millions of mortgages as safe. But in Emili-approved cases where the banks were forced to foreclose, the homes turned out to be worth much less than believed.
As the housing market in Canada begins to cool and the federal government talks of a soft landing for home prices, rather than a hard crash, attention is turning to the factors that fed record borrowing and contributed to overheated sales and price increases – and the risks that now lie within the financial system. Rock-bottom interest rates propelled Canadian real estate to undreamt-of heights, and Ottawa’s decision to loosen mortgage rules added to the froth, as marginal buyers flooded into the market.
That much is amply documented. But an investigation by The Globe and Mail has uncovered a hidden risk in Canada’s housing markets: The rise of automated lending approvals, which has created a rapid-fire system that has financial regulators worried about the foundations that underpin Canada’s housing market. There are worries that the true worth of Canadians’ homes could be lower than what computerized methods spit out. There are also worries that unscrupulous human appraisers can manipulate home values.
Those distortions matter less in a strong economy and a rising market, in which price appreciation covers up any errors. But the days of steady gains in real estate are gone: Almost all major metropolitan markets have plateaued, and in some, such as Vancouver, housing prices are falling at a worrying pace.
“Everyone is getting nervous now,” says Phil West, a veteran of the appraisal industry who is critical of Emili. “There is more and more potential of a downturn in the marketplace.”
An on-site visit to a suburban Vancouver home with Mr. Sieb illustrates the concern. As he begins walking through the house, the appraiser grows skeptical about the information the bank has been given about this home.
The listing says this house – a bungalow listed for $479,000 – was built in 1980 and is newly renovated. He notes some fresh carpet and a recently installed light switch, but the kitchen and other rooms show troubling signs of age. “This isn’t a renovation,” he says flatly. “You wouldn’t call it that unless you were stretching what you see for the purpose of getting the value up.”
Mr. Sieb checks the dates stamped on the plumbing. “This place was built in the 70s,” he says, shaking his head.
This, he explains, is the sort of thing that the computers miss.
Last month, Mr. Sieb appraised a home that turned out to be several hundred feet smaller than what the paperwork on the house claimed.
“In my career,” says Mr. Sieb, who has been appraising for 30 years and now runs Inter-City Appraisals of Coquitlam, B.C., “maybe five times have I had the exact same measurements as the realtor.”
– from ‘Shaky foundations: How Ottawa’s computers get Canadian home prices wrong’, Grant Robertson and Tara Perkins, Globe & Mail, 22 Dec 2012[hat-tip Ralph Cramdown]
An article that is worth the entire read.
We particularly like the way the description of the current state of the market is not sugar-coated, the thorough discussion of the clearly fudge-able Emili system, and, in particular, the observation that these kinds of rethinks of aspects of market ‘regulation’ are only questioned when a market begins to fail. As the authors say: “Those distortions matter less in a strong economy and a rising market, in which price appreciation covers up any errors.”
UPDATE: Further regarding the Emili discussion:
“Over portfolios with hundreds of thousands of properties, there will always be overvaluation and undervaluation, and the overwhelming majority of those cases fall within safe parameters. What the public needs to know is the tail risk of auto-valued applications, versus appraiser-evaluated apps. Unfortunately, we don’t have enough data to gauge that yet.
Inevitably, people will read the Globe’s story and think that CMHC is using some back-of-the-napkin formula to judge property risk. That’s so far from the truth. Emili is not some 100-line computer program written by a college intern. It is multi-million dollar mission critical technology benefiting from the best available data and over two decades of R&D.
CMHC knows the risk of it botching property valuations en masse. It has the public, press and regulators breathing down its neck around the clock. It knows the risks in automated valuations better than virtually anyone in the country because it’s processed millions of mortgage files since 1996. And it tirelessly optimizes its systems to statistically factor in and adjust for those risks. To imply that CMHC cannot account for “recent movements in home prices” is simply laughable.”
– from ‘emili Criticisms Resurface’, Rob McLister, canadianmortgagetrends.com, 22 Dec 2012
[hat-tip Ralph Cramdown, added at the suggestion of jesse/YVR]
Okay, fair point. One has to do a careful analysis of the entire risk across the whole CMHC portfolio, agreed; it’s not enough to point to a few anecdotes of errors in valuation assessment and conclude that the entire system is at high risk. The anecdotes could be representative example of a systemic bias towards overvaluation, but they could also simply be outliers.
At the same time, when Rob McLister expresses high confidence in CMHCs risk modelling, refers to the “multi-million dollar mission critical technology”, and states that this criticism of CMHC is “laughable”, we are not immediately reassured. After all, he is the same guy who called the idea of 40% price drops “farcical”. Any market observer who lacks the imagination to see the possibility of such an outcome is at risk of being blinkered in their analysis.
When we hear market participants calling the idea of certain outcomes “laughable” and “farcical”, we’d strongly suggest one give serious thought to the possibility of those outcomes coming to pass. Why? Because their high confidence reflects the strong probability that a very substantial percentage of market participants are not prepared for that outcome, and that is the very mechanism by which such outcomes come to pass! This is closely related to the analysis of sentiment, and is Contrarianism 101.
When market participants are 100% convinced that stock ‘x’ can only go up, where does it go?
At 125, the thought of Nortel trading at 50 was “farcical”, and “multi-million dollar mission critical technology” showed that such a drop was impossible.