Mortgage measures too Harsh?

Relax lending rules, industry group says

The risk of mortgage rates rising to unaffordable levels in the near future is “negligible” and recent measures taken by Ottawa to clamp down on housing loans may be too harsh, says Canada’s mortgage industry association.

Due to the effect of tightened lending rules “housing demand at present and for the near future is probably lower than it needs to be,” according to the Canadian Association of Accredited Mortgage Professionals, which represents brokers and others in the industry.

In fact, the group suggested in a report Wednesday that the rules may need to be relaxed.

CAAMP said that a vast majority of borrowers studied had left themselves room to absorb a hike of as much as one percentage point on fixed-rate mortgages and even more on variable-rate mortgages.

“Canadians — lenders and borrowers — have been highly prudent in the mortgage market,” Will Dunning, the association’s chief economist, wrote in the report.

“There have been some calls for mortgage lending criteria to be tightened further. This analysis concludes that Canadian lending criteria are already tight enough. In fact, some might argue that with the changes implemented in April 2010, Canadian criteria are currently too tight.”

The report came two days after federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty further altered lending rules to curb higher-risk borrowing in the housing sector. Changes coming into effect in March include reducing the maximum amortization period to 30 years from 35 for insured mortgages and limiting how much money Canadians can borrow using their homes.

It was the third time mortgage rules have been tightened in the past three years, a period in which historically low interest rates have been fuel for rampant borrowing.

On Tuesday, Bank of Canada governor Mark Carney left the key overnight lending rate untouched at one per cent, but with a renewed warning that household debt is mounting.

Both Carney and Flaherty have warned repeatedly over the past several months that Canadian consumer debt is rising too rapidly and threatens the future health of the economy.

Flaherty dismissed the CAAMP report Wednesday, noting the group has a vested interest in seeing the housing and mortgage markets remain robust.

“My concern has been to strike the right balance between the availability of credit in the residential housing sector and the danger of developing any sort of bubble in the housing sector,” he told reporters, adding that he doesn’t believe further tightening will be necessary at this time.

John Andrew, a professor at Queen’s University School of Urban and Regional Planning, said it’s unlikely mortgage reforms would put a significant chill on the housing market because the changes are aimed at the highest-risk borrowers, who are already unlikely to qualify for insured borrowing from most lenders.

“I dispute their claim that the housing market is slowing down,” he said.

“I don’t see (mortgage changes) really affecting the market that much because there really aren’t that many lenders that are going to be lending … to that type of a borrower anyway.”

But CAAMP said changes made by Flaherty last April had already disqualified a significant number of potential borrowers, thereby curbing debt growth.

Last April, the government introduced changes that forced borrowers to meet the standards for a five-year fixed-rate mortgage even when applying for a lower-interest, shorter-term loan.

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