Blogs & Comment

House prices: 9 reasons not to panic

Like stocks, buy and hold beats timing the housing market.

(Illo: Alberto Ruggieri/Getty)

With the mainstream financial media now sounding a shrill alarm about the Canadian housing bubble, is it time to sell the house? Unless you’re transferring to a new job, or a retiree wanting to downsize or move to more favourable climes, you’re probably better off staying put rather than capitulating to the panic of articles like “Ready to be bold? Sell the house and rent.”

House prices may indeed stagnate or head south for a while, especially in the heated condo markets of Vancouver and Toronto. Those kinds of fluctuations are part of the natural course of markets. But to say house prices are going to crash like they did in the U.S. is a stretch. Here are nine reasons why.

1. Behavioural finance tells us that when extrapolating into the future, people tend to give too much weight to recent events. Accordingly, a number of bloggers and many in the mainstream financial press presently appear to view a U.S.-style housing crash in Canada as a near certainty. But if one looks back in time over many decades, such calamities are rare, “fat-tail” events. On this basis, it seems importune to urge homeowners to sell for the sake of avoiding what historically is a low-probability event.

2. It is anomalous to see financial journalists talk about the futility of market timing in the stock market but then give the impression houses should be sold to avoid an anticipated collapse in prices. Why should trying to sell a home at the top and buying it back at the bottom work out any better than the dismal record of those who have tried timing the stock market? In fact, the comments section of the above mentioned article has many stories of people who did sell in past years because they thought house prices were too high, only to subsequently watch from the sidelines as prices continued to march upward. And even if one does exit at the peak, there is the tricky task of timing re-entry. Not to be overlooked, as well, is the extent to which the exorbitant transaction costs in the housing market may eat into any possible gains.

3. Selling one’s house to become, for example, a renter entails giving up the inflation hedge represented by a hard asset. Prices for gold bullion and other precious metals have climbed over the past decade to new heights as investors sought protection against the erosion of incomes and wealth by inflation. This is a material threat given the vast quantities of money that central banks are printing to keep the banking and government sectors from defaulting on their monumental financial obligations. Indeed, the response to huge debt burdens historically has been to inflate them away. Owning a home is an inflation hedge, and unlike precious metals, the owners get to live in their hedge.

4. Housing bears base much of their case on price-to-rent and price-to-income ratios showing substantial over-valuation. But as I suggested in “What the housing bears may be overlooking,” valuation isn’t extreme when looking at the yardstick most ordinary folk use: mortgage payments relative to family income. Over-valuation doesn’t look so severe by this measure because a big component of mortgage payments—interest rates—is very low and incomes have continued to rise over the years.

5. Housing doomsters argue that interest rates are abnormally low and poised to climb, which would make houses less affordable and result in a popping noise. However, as I wrote in “5 reasons why the housing market won’t crash,” the Bank of Canada will only allow its rates to climb as long as the economy is growing vigorously—which, in turn, means that employment and income levels are trending upward. Historically, job increases and wage gains have buoyed the housing market and served as an offset to rising mortgage rates, warding off extreme scenarios such as plunging house prices. 

6. Before the U.S. crash, the general view was that house prices could only go up. Such a psychology led to reckless behaviour and contributed to the excesses now being worked off in the U.S. Their plight has largely cured Canadians of that dangerous mindset. In the old days, for example, the government responded to high prices by legislating tax breaks for first-time home buyers. This time around, Finance Minister Flaherty has taken steps to restrict the availability of mortgage finance, and just recently moved to put the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. (CMHC) under the supervision of the Office of the Superintendent of Financial Institutions (OSFI).

7. It hardly needs to be said, but housing should be considered primarily as a consumption item. Simply put, its main purpose is to provide shelter. Uprooting could mean leaving behind niceties such as good schools for your children and the circle of friends they have acquired—just to cite a couple of inconveniences. Taking an investment approach and trying to speculate on the ups and downs of prices can lead to undesirable outcomes both financially and in terms of quality of life.

8. The crash in the U.S. had a lot to do with circumstances unique to that country. The banking system was hyper-competitive and quick to take risks in pursuit of profits; policymakers aggressively pushed homeownership through measures such as tax breaks for mortgage interest payments; and weak recourse laws let mortgage defaulters off the hook. Canada has a different environment—a more stable and regulated banking sector, less of a policy push toward home ownership and recourse laws that allow wider latitude for mortgage lenders to go after delinquents.

9. What’s especially different is the phase the monetary cycle is in. When the U.S. housing market keeled over in 2008, the Federal Reserve was deliberately trying to slow down the economy. At first its higher interest rates had little impact because momentum in job and income gains were offsetting. But the Fed kept on tightening until short-term interest rates surpassed long-term rates, creating “inversion in the yield curve.” It was this severe degree of monetary restraint that ultimately punctured the mania. In Canada, monetary policy is currently highly expansionary, along with the rest of central bankers around the world. It is nowhere near an inversion of the yield curve—probably years away. The catalyst for over-valuation to end traumatically is missing, and will be for some time.

So relax, homeowners. There are many reasons not to put the ‘For Sale’ sign up. True, there could come a day when the yield curve in Canada inverts and there is a retreat in house prices. But even then, there is no inevitability to a housing catastrophe. A unique confluence of events came together in the U.S. during 2008—a once-in-a-lifetime event from which Canadians had the good fortune to be spared.