Transcript of The Polestar Podcast: The Interest Rate Environment and Lending, What’s Next?
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Welcome to the Polestar Podcast by VELA Wealth. Today, I have the pleasure of speaking with Dan Pultr from TMG, The Mortgage Group. We’re going to be talking about the interest rate environment, lending, and what awaits us next. This is a particularly interesting topic because, having been in the advice industry for 20 years, cash has never really been something that we’ve talked to people as an asset class for at least a decade. That’s because interest rates have been low for an extended period of time, and recently, that has come to the forefront of many conversations. Conversely, that also means that interest rates are high on lending as well, which affects people in different ways.
Dan, welcome! First off, how did we get where we are at?
Hey, Rob. Thank you so much for having me. It’s a pleasure to be on the podcast with you today.
So, how did we get here? Well, we had a few things happen that set the stage for where we are today. First and foremost, I think many of us choose not to remember, but we spent some time in lockdown. The central banks from around the world came together and realized that during a lockdown, they really didn’t want any risk of an economic meltdown. So, they effectively dropped all interest rates to zero in most markets. That fueled a steady stream of borrowing for various different reasons – some corporate, and some personal such as people buying houses, investment properties, etc. The savings rates went through the roof – we saw people accumulating, as you mentioned, cash. People were saving at an incredibly high rate relative to what they had in the past. Following that, we had the steepest and fastest interest rate increase that we’ve ever seen in this country. When you combine those two, you create a lot of uncertainty and find yourself in a market where people are a little uneasy and stressed about what the future holds for them.
So, with that stress, how is the sentiment in the market right now? We’re obviously talking about Vancouver, but there’s a whole world outside of here and Canada. If you could give a little proxy for Vancouver and then maybe the rest of Canada, that would be helpful.
For sure. So, where does that put us today? I feel as though what we’ve seen is an overreaction, both among the central banks, which many would probably say is not an overreaction and that they needed to do exactly this. But I’m not a central banker, nor do I claim to be at the taps of monetary policy. However, where that led us is what they call a confidence issue, which is where the Central Bank told us that we can feel confident or rest assured that interest rates are going to continue to be low through 2023 effectively. So, everyone was caught by surprise. And when you catch people by surprise, after they’ve made some incredibly large financial decisions, such as purchasing a house, they don’t know if they’ve made the right decision. The biggest impact was probably with variable rate mortgage holders. So, anybody that had a mortgage that’s based on prime effectively, which is often used as an index for variable-rate or adjustable-rate mortgages, or lines of credit, felt a bit of a sticker shock as it relates to the payments that they were paying or the interest they were being charged.
There are a number of institutions in Canada that offer variable-rate mortgages where the payment does not actually adjust when the rates change. So, they’re paying less and less principal or no principal at some point in time. At future points in time, in some cases not even paying enough to cover the interest. So, people found themselves in these circumstances, and the rules of which the banks were supposed to govern themselves were kind of held true for a short period of time. Then it appeared that everyone just took the piece of paper they were written on, threw them out the window, and said, “the number one thing we want to make sure is that we put people in a home. People have gotten mortgages. We want to make sure that they’ve continued to make payments”.
We’ve seen a number of people that have seen their payments increase and are feeling financial stress, so they’re in a position where they’re making different decisions today as a result of their mortgage payment increasing.
There’s a whole other class of people who know that their mortgage payments should be increasing, but they know they can’t afford it. Therefore, they’re trying to save and put together a small sum of money to make a prepayment towards their mortgage. We also have people who are in a comfortable position but are anticipating some sticker shock when their mortgage renewal comes up in six months, twelve months, or two years’ time.
When we talk specifically about Vancouver, it’s probably not surprising to hear that Vancouver prices are quite high, and people carry very large mortgages. Therefore, that sticker shock could be quite significant for some individuals. You may have seen your mortgage payments or the interest required to cover your mortgage payments have increased by 45% to 55% over the past year. That’s a material jump! People started making different decisions with their debt. First and foremost, prior to that, there were many opportunities for homeowners and investors to refinance or restructure their debt to get cheaper money. However, those opportunities have effectively ceased to exist. We know that fewer people are making the decision to refinance purely to decrease their interest costs. Also we are still seeing some individuals needing to refinance because they may have a business opportunity or have gotten themselves into more debt than they would like, and they need to pay consumer debt with mortgage debt. It’s still relatively cheaper than a 19.99% interest rate. We have seen people have to make different decisions relating to that, and we see it a little bit on the front lines. We obviously see the homeowner making these decisions, but we don’t see their day-to-day decisions as much. However, that’s what these central bankers wanted. They wanted people to change their vacation habits, dining habits, and spending habits to try and curb inflation because that was the driving force behind the rate increases.
If you look at Vancouver, how is this impacting the real estate market? Effectively, the real estate market almost came to a standstill compared to where it was previously. Recently, I heard a comparison that if you’re going 200 kilometers an hour down the highway, and someone slows you down to 50 kilometers an hour or even a 100, it may feel as though you’re completely standing still relative to where you were previously. That’s kind of where we went to. We were effectively going at a very quick pace, and now things are much slower.
Over the past 30 days, with some changes in the monetary policy, or more accurately, changes in the words that the central bankers are saying about the future, we have started to find a little bit of stability for people to start making financial decisions again. There seemed to be a period of time where people were uncertain enough that they were unwilling to make financial decisions. We saw this with developers and homeowners. They just didn’t know where interest rates were headed, and when they don’t know, it’s really hard to make a decision. Now we kind of know that we may be at or very close to the peak of interest rates as it relates to variable-rate mortgages and home equity lines of credit, anything pending its prime. We’re seeing people start coming off the sidelines, and we’re seeing developers restarting projects that they may have paused for a period of time. Therefore, we’re starting to see that momentum start to build. We’ve only seen it for 30 days, so whether it’s a blip or a trend, that’s yet to be determined.
As it relates to other parts of Canada, I would say that two markets that were most largely impacted by this would be the GDBA and GTA, primarily because of the levels of wealth and prices in those areas. If you look at Alberta or Atlantic Canada, some of those markets have moderated a little bit but not quite to the extremes that we’re seeing in some of those other markets. And part of that is to do with some of the shift that has happened in real estate habits. Prior to COVID, it would be very uncommon for someone to pick up and move, lets say Hope and work remotely. Now we have some of those new habits, so we’re seeing those dynamics start to play out in how the real estate market is behaving as well.
It sounds like you’re talking quite a bit there at the end about the demand for lending returning because people can see some stability. How are banks assessing and underwriting risk right now in the current environment, and how does that affect people’s ability to borrow, certainly to the extent they were able to borrow, to a couple of years ago?
The fortunate thing, and a number of people actually point this out as sort of a saving grace that we had implemented previously, is that in Canada, we have a mortgage stress test. So, it has been put in place to essentially hedge against the future of rising interest rates. Because borrowers were already qualifying at whatever interest rate they were at, plus 2%, we were seeing that people, at least on paper, looked to be in reasonably good shape to withstand an increase. Now, whether they want to increase their payments or not is another thing, but from a bank’s perspective, I think they were reasonably stringent enough already that it didn’t make a material impact.
Now, one of the interesting nuances is how the stress test is structured. We did see a period of time where people were almost rewarded for going variable because the variable-rate interest rates were a little bit less and as a result, by taking a variable-rate mortgage, borrowers were actually qualifying for a little bit more. I know that’s something some regulators have looked at as a risk or a concern because we don’t want to see people taking on more risk to get a variable-rate mortgage than a fixed-rate mortgage. With a fixed-rate mortgage, we know what to expect over time.
So banks are still okay to lend?
We haven’t really seen much of a pullback. We’ve seen a few, let’s call them “less competitive” than they would otherwise be. We’ve seen that, but that’s because mortgages are a driver for a number of other consumer products. So, you may hear banks from time to time refer to a client’s as “franchisable” or “franchise a client” which essentially means how many products they can they offer to one individual. It’s kind of a sweet spot that they have, and they offer what they know if they bring in a consumer as their mortgage client, they now have an opportunity to also convert that person to a savings account, a credit card, or whatever else they offer. I’m sure you’ve all experienced or at least your listeners have experienced some of the offers that they may get from institutions when you’re new to them versus existing clients, similar to with cell phone companies. Because mortgages have always been the lead in drawing new clients, I feel as though they’re still going to continue. And because they’re in a much smaller market to operate within, some are choosing to be ultra-competitive, and some are looking to just work with their existing customers and focus on that aspect. So, each major institution differs in how they’re operating. Within that, the nice thing is that there’s a cluster of companies, and we use the term “monoline vendors,” but a number of people know them as mortgage finance companies – these are major Canadian financial institutions that only deal in mortgages, and they are finding this as an opportunity to be ultra-competitive to try and acquire some clients because they know that that’s their only bread and butter. So, mortgages are the only thing that they offer.
So, one thing I picked up on from what you said earlier is that some lenders are not being as competitive as others. Is that down to risks in their mortgage business? Or are they taking advantage of the situation? As a result of that, as somebody who’s seeking debt at the time renewal or a purchase, how those people should be responding so they make sure that they get the best value?
Right. So, the single best piece of advice I would say to anyone listening is if you’re getting a renewal offer from your bank, if you happen to have a mortgage with a mortgage finance company, I highly recommend talking to a mortgage broker in your neighborhood. The reason I say that is that first of all, mortgage brokers are independent in the sense that they don’t work for any of these financial institutions. Their mandate is to try and obviously earn your business, but obviously they want to make sure that they are effectively providing you with a sound advice and good options for you. What we’re seeing right now is great time for you to take that time, send them your mortgage statement, have them review your renewal offer, so that you can actually see what is real and you can see whether or not the offer that you’re being offered is in fact competitive.
Sometimes what we see is that institutions will just essentially send out blanket letters and they just hope that people sign on the dotted line. Other times, they will effectively ratchet up their behavior as time moves on or get closer to your renewal date, so they might just send a letter. Then they might wait for a period of time. Then they might follow up with a phone call and only once they realize that you’re potentially leaving, they do actually offer you a good deal. Versus when you’re dealing with a mortgage broker, you know that in fact they’re compelled to make sure you get the best offer that they have available for you from the onset and they can tell you all of your options whether you can leave early, or if you have to wait, would there be a penalty or any sort of costs associated with the move. And a lot of the institutions do bank on the fact that there is some friction to move it. There is some time, energy and effort that goes into you moving from one institution to another. And so, they do factor that in when they make you an offer, but it is very prudent to at the very least have a second opinion on what you’re being offered. Earlier you can do that in the process the better. If you start that process 90 days out, that’s great. You can even start it as far out as six months out. So, it’s worth starting that conversation early.
So pre-pandemic, how long were people fixing for versus now? How long are people fixing for if they weren’t fixed?
It’s interesting actually because right now what we’re seeing is probably the most competitive interest rate out there. It seems to be that sort of four-five year rate environment. So that’s where we’re seeing the most competition. However, the desire among borrowers is much shorter than that everyone seems to feel as though that within one year or two years that rates are going to be better. I’m not an economist, however, I did major in economics as an undergraduate. But I do feel similarly to it. However, if you look at every economist globally and their predictions, no one’s always right and you probably find 50% of them being right and 50% of them being wrong. The reality is that there’s definitely some risk to either of those strategies. The single thing that I would focus on is trying to ensure that your mortgage is aligned with your life cycle timeline. That is a really important thing to consider. There’s a thing in mortgage terms called prepayment penalties, and probably the single biggest frustration among borrowers is if they get stuck with a prepayment penalty and it’s material. They never forget and they always remember it and they want see why it shouldn’t be as much as it is. I’ve seen some very, very large prepayment penalties in the 10th of thousands of dollars. So, if you plan on moving or maybe your investment horizon is different, if you can match up your timeline, that’s really valuable to some of the mitigations as it relates to that. But currently, most people are interested in a one- to three-year term. However, when they’re offered the rates that are available in the four and five year it does sway their decision a little bit because they’re more focused and I think this is based on natural human behavior – while people have the best intentions of going shorter term to try and be in a position where in one or two or three years’ time they’re renewing at a better interest rate environment. Once they see the difference and interest rates, which may only be 50 basis points or 0.5%, but that may be enough to make the four-year option more appealing. And I’ll take that because it’s a compelling offer. So it’s just important to sit down with somebody and let them give you all those options and then you decide what works best.
The other interesting thing about the shorter-term ones is that you have a little bit less market competition available for you as the shorter the term is. So, some of these institutions will offer to compensate you for moving from one to the other and as the term gets shorter, essentially their ability to recoup the costs of moving you from one institution to another decreases enough that they say they’re not going to cover the cost if you’re only going to come there for one year. They may convert you and you might stay within the institution, but all I’m simply saying there are options. It’s just that there’s less options than if you’re, for example, trying to move and it’s a four-year fixed we are looking at.
Do higher interest rates create more stable housing market pricing?
Well, that’s interesting. Do they create more stable markets? What I can say is this increase in interest rates has significantly decreased the demand for housing or put it differently it’s at least stalled it because I don’t believe that the actual demand has dissipated I just think that people are uncertain enough that they want to wait. That’s a bit of a double-edged sword, because if everybody waits, then that just means we get right back to multiple offer circumstances.
Secondly, we have another market condition that is also a stimulus to demand and that’s immigration. In the last 12 months, we saw a significant amount of immigration and it’s going to continue. That included temporary foreign workers, which is a whole another class beyond the actual immigration that we typically would count. And the numbers were staggering there. The numbers that I saw in the most recent presentation was almost 1,100,000 in 2022, if you account for the temporary foreign workers. So that’s a significant amount of people that we’re having to house. So, you’re causing a significant stimulus to demand, all else being equal, and then you have a demand start to come back online because it was delayed. I think if you’re going to move, you’re going to want to change your home interest rates aside, interest rates may only stall for a period of time. Eventually, you’re just going to say “Look, we can’t live in this one-bedroom townhouse or condo with three kids…”. Eventually you have to make that decision, whatever that decision may be, you may move further out to find more affordability.
Thirdly, we did see a bit of a pricing correction. We did see a decrease in price, but it was almost offset enough that the payments were effectively close to the same. There’s a rule in Canada around mortgage default insurance and that it’s only available for properties that are under $1,000,000. And this is where it did create a little bit of stimulus: if your property was worth $1.1 million and now is worth $980,000 there’re actually more people able to purchase that home because the amount of down payment that is required for a property that’s $980,000 is materially different than if you’re purchasing a property worth $1.1 million.
Now, we’ve talked a lot about demand, but the other piece that is more problematic, and which is going to continue to be a challenge for us and what’s going to keep home prices at least elevated, my comment on it would be – I think it’s going to be still elevated for a period of time. I think if nothing else it’s going to maintain stability and pricing it’s going to pose some frustration though, because it’s going to continue to see multiple offer situations, is that we still don’t have supply. We are not building enough housing in Canada for the number of people we have, nor for the amount of immigration we receive. And now, there is less willingness to sell homes because of some of the existing market conditions. People are seeing that interest rates are high, and they hear that prices are coming down. Is that the time when you want to try to sell your house for top dollar? Of course, if you’re selling you eventually buying, but we know that people are considering this option. We are starting to see some of those things play out. For instance, the provincial government in BC is trying to mandate the type of allotment you have on any single-family lot. So, we’re hopeful that this will increase supply and create more opportunities for affordable housing. However, it will take years for any of these changes to come into effect. Supply is not something you can turn on or off, and the impact of it takes quite some time through the cycle.
Right now, if you look at the current market, people are unwilling to list their homes. Therefore, the properties that are on the market have been there for some time, perhaps because the price is too high or it’s not very desirable. The properties that are desirable get a ton of interest, and if you talk to a realtor today, they will probably tell you they have a ton of interest. They may even end up in a multiple offer situation, where people jump on a specific property in the neighborhood. If there are only two properties for sale in the entire neighborhood, and 50 people show up at each, the price is almost irrelevant. It now becomes a matter of what someone is willing to pay for one of these properties, and they have a timeline and a budget. So, we are back to this sort of imbalance in supply. We need steady, long-term, consistent supply, and that’s what’s going to allow us to be in a position where prices will be a little more stable over the long-term, versus some of the big ups and downs we’ve seen. Those big ups and downs are a little concerning too, right? We don’t want to see wild swings because somebody always gets caught at the peak of that. We’d rather see some level of stability. Personally, I want some headlines about multiple offers right now because it might bring more supply to the market with people willing to sell their homes because they hear that prices are no longer falling due to low real estate activity. Only time will tell, and as I mentioned earlier, we don’t know if it’s a blip or a trend right now, but we’re seeing a little more stability over the past 30 days.
Got it. So, Dan, I’m not going to hold you to this, and neither of our listeners, but will we be looking at lower interest rates in one year?
I had the opportunity to ask a couple of economists a couple of weeks back, and both of them bet that if you take the five-year fix, which is what everybody looks at in Canada, we would all anticipate interest rates being lower from where they are today. I do think that there’s room for that to come down, so I would say yes.
As it relates to variable-rate mortgages or anything pegged to prime, I don’t think we’re going to see any central banker, I don’t think in Canada or the US, which we typically take a price from the US. I can’t see them lowering the interbank lending rate this year. I would be very, very surprised. Would they lower it in early 2024? Maybe. But all the sentiment from all the economists is that the Bank of Canada has said, and has now called it “a confidence issue”, that interest rates were going to stay low, and then they went the other way. Right now, they’re telling us they want to kill inflate and they want to make sure inflation is dead, completely dead, like never going to rear its head to the levels that it was. So, until they actually see something that gives them that sort of certainty, that inflation is dead, they will not start decreasing rates. They will hold firm, and that may result in some stress to the overall economy that we just don’t know where that is yet. We haven’t really seen any real material pain in the Canadian economy just yet.
Yes, totally I agree with that. I think that’s a good topic for another podcast – “When is inflation dead?”.
Yes, that would be no expertise of mine but it would be something I’d love to listen to. I’m sure there’s a bunch of interesting thoughts on that and interestingly enough, can you kill inflation when the rates are high and part of the driving force to inflation is interest rate costs on mortgages, right?
Dan, thank you. It’s been awesome conversation.
Thank you very much for having me Rob, I really appreciate it.
Pleasure. Cheers, Dan.
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