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The portion of mortgage indebted households with a primary mortgage debt-to-disposable income ratio in excess of 500 percent has climbed from 3 percent in 1999 to 11 percent in 2012.

December 9, 2015 – The federal government should pay close attention to several pockets of risk in the Canadian housing market, according to a new C.D. Howe Institute report. In “Mortgaged to the Hilt: Risks From The Distribution of Household Mortgage Debt,” authors Craig Alexander and Paul Jacobson expose pockets of vulnerability by going beyond national averages and focusing on the distribution of house mortgage debt by income, age and region, all of which matter most when assessing risk.

“Household mortgage debt has risen dramatically and traditional economy-wide averages understate the degree of financial risk for those that carried mortgages because they typically divide the value of mortgages across the income of households with and without mortgages”, remarks Alexander. 

Using the data from the Survey of Financial Security, the authors find that the ratio of the value of mortgages on primary dwellings have jumped from 144 percent of after-tax income in 1999 to 204 percent in 2012.  However, this also understates the degree of financial risk for a significant minority of households.

The author’s analysis suggests that a significant minority of Canadians having taken on a high degree of financial risk. The portion of mortgage indebted households with a primary mortgage debt-to-disposable income ratio in excess of 500 percent has climbed from 3 percent in 1999 to 11 percent in 2012. Their analysis of the distribution of mortgage debt is as follows:

  1. Income: The increase in highly mortgage-indebted households has been in all income groups, but more so in lower-income quintiles.
  2. Age: The increase in financial risk is also evident across all age groups, but more so for younger Canadians who have entered the market most recently.
  3. Region: As one might expect, there has been greater concentration of mortgage debt in the provinces with the strongest housing booms.

Additionally, the authors find that roughly 1-in-5 of mortgage indebted households have less than $5,000 in financial assets to draw upon in response to a loss of income or to higher debt service costs. 1-in-10 mortgage-indebted households have less than $1,500 in financial assets to address any shock. This represents an inadequate financial buffer, as average mortgage payments are more than $1,000 a month, before taxes and operating costs.

The federal government may want to consider further policy actions to lean against the shift towards significantly higher mortgage burdens. However, such policy measures should not be unduly heavy handed and should be targeted to address the distributional nature of the risks.

For example, potential targeted measures would be to tighten underwriting requirements by lifting required credit scores, capping total debt-service ratios at lower levels, lifting qualifying interest rates when doing income testing, or varying the minimum downpayment by the size of mortgage to target higher-priced markets. Such measures would build on the regulatory tightening already done to date without posing a material threat to Canadian real estate markets.

Click here for the full report

The C.D. Howe Institute is an independent not-for-profit research institute whose mission is to raise living standards by fostering economically sound public policies. Widely considered to be Canada's most influential think tank, the Institute is a trusted source of essential policy intelligence, distinguished by research that is nonpartisan, evidence-based and subject to definitive expert review.

For more information contact: Craig Alexander, Vice President, Economic Analysis, C.D. Howe Institute; Paul Jacobson, Consulting Economist, Jacobson Consulting Inc.: 416-865-1904 or email: kmurphy@cdhowe.org.