Proposed changes to mortgage rules may force some consumers to consider more volatile variable rate mortgages in order to qualify under a strict stress test proposed by Canada’s banking regulator.
Guidelines published by the Office of the Superintendent of Financial Institutions in July, which the agency is now receiving feedback on, would change the qualifying rules for uninsured mortgages in Canada — a less regulated segment of the market made up of consumers who have down payments of 20 per cent or more.
The rules under consideration would force consumers to qualify for loans based on the rate on their contract plus 200 basis points, a move that might lead some people into shorter term loans that have lower rates and are therefore easier to qualify for.
“It could be one of the unintended consequences,” said Benjamin Tal, deputy chief economist with CIBC World Markets Inc., about the changes. Tal believes OSFI will modify its proposal before it is finalized and one of the factors under consideration could be how the rules might discourage Canadians from locking in their rates.
Rob McLister, the founder of ratespy.com, said the potential impact of the changes can be seen when examining the current yield curve, which shows longer term rates are still much higher. As an example, with the prime rate now 3.2 per cent and the average discount on a five-year variable rate mortgage around 65 basis points, that means those consumers would have to qualify based on a rate of 2.55 per cent plus 200 basis points or 4.55 per cent.
“Generally, the variable will be cheaper. Maybe the one-year or two years (even more so). We have people who can’t qualify because of 10 basis points. I think it will force at least 10 per cent of uninsured borrowers to look at shorter-term rates that have more risk,” said McLister, who notes the average five-year fixed rate mortgage is more like 3.19 per cent.
Those consumers looking for the safety of a five-year rate would end up having to qualify based on 5.19 per cent with the 64 extra basis points meaning they could get a larger loan by borrowing at short-term rates.
The Bank of Canada has raised its overnight lending rate twice in the last two months and may do so again in October. Such hikes, which affect variable-rate products that are tied to prime, are part of the risk that comes with a floating rate product.
McLister said a typical conventional borrower would qualify for a home that’s about six per cent more expensive by choosing a lower more volatile variable, one- or two-year rate instead of a “safer” five-year fixed.
That assessment was based on latest median household income from Statistics Canada, average non-mortgage debt, a 30-year amortization and a 20 per cent down payment.
The OSFI changes fly in the face of previous government policy, which had tried to entice people into longer-term products by making the qualifying easier.
Consumers with less than 20 per cent down on a mortgage and their loans backed by Ottawa already must qualify based on the five-year Bank of Canada qualifying rate of 4.84 per cent. That rule change was made in October, 2016 but previously those high-ratio borrowers could use the rate on their contract if they were locking in for five years or longer.
Robert Kavcic a senior economist with Bank of Montreal, said households in Toronto — currently facing rapidly declining sales and an average price correction of almost 25 per cent from the April peak, can withstand more rate increases but he agrees people on the fringe may turn to shorter-term money to get into the housing market.
“I think the goal is to make sure people can pay higher rates two or three years down the road,” said Kavcic.”It does sound like there is more caution (about proposed changes) given what is happening in the Toronto market.”