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Mortgage lender warns of housing bubble


November 12, 2009
Tony Wong
Toronto Star

 
Low interest rates have caused some Canadians to act "irrationally" in the housing market, potentially taking on too much debt that could lead to economic difficulties down the road, says the president and CEO of ING Direct Canada.

"You have situations in some markets such as Toronto where people are making multiple offers for homes, they are paying thousands more and waiving conditions. It gives me concern they may not be thinking rationally, and this could lead to problems," Peter Aceto said in an interview Wednesday.

"Canadians are also paying their homes off slower and slower, and the concern for me is that they are buying more house than they can really afford."

Aceto said he is so concerned about the market that he has instructed staff to advise customers not to go with longer-term amortizations if they can help it. More than 50 per cent of all mortgages in Canada this year were amortizations longer than the standard 25 years, says Aceto.

As a result, the lender said he is worried that some consumers are biting off more than they can chew.

"It's almost as if Torontonians feel very concerned they are missing something with such low rates." said Aceto. "The problem is: can they afford to pay for their mortgage five years from now, when interest rates go back up?"

Sales of existing homes in the Toronto area were up 64 per cent in October from the same time last year, while average prices hit a record $423,559, up 20 per cent. Bidding wars have become common in choice neighbourhoods.

Bank of Canada Governor Mark Carney has already expressed concern that an asset bubble may be forming. And other financial community heavyweights such as CIBC World Markets senior economist Benjamin Tal told the Star last week that consumers are "blinded" by low interest rates.

However, Aceto is the first bank president to express concern over the housing market.

He acknowledged that his comments will likely not be popular with money lenders since he is also in the business of selling mortgages. "What I do know is that we shouldn't be focused on the short term," he said

"We shouldn't be interested in just selling mortgages to get our numbers up for the next quarter. If banks help our customers make the right financial decisions, then we will have a healthy and happy consumer and economy. It just makes sense."

Aceto's former job at ING was chief risk officer. He spent two years in California during the height of the real estate bubble, and felt that Canadians would not be as spendthrift as their American counterparts. But when he arrived back in Canada he was surprised to see that some consumers were acting in a similar way.

"Canadians have been proud internally that we're very different than the Americans in the way we behave in terms of our spending habits and the way we deal with credit. But over time we have become a lot closer than we think," said Aceto.

For consumers with 35-year amortizations, which ING sells, he advises that they accelerate their payments.

"That way if you have a $300,000 mortgage, instead of owing $280,000, maybe you only owe $200,000 when rates are higher. It prepares you for difficult times," said Aceto.

Despite his concerns, Aceto maintained that the Canadian economy is in much better shape than the U.S., where zero-down and longer amortizations created a massive housing bubble. And he said the Canadian government has done a good job in limiting long-term amortizations to 35 years.

"The banking system is much more sound, but that doesn't mean we should be complacent," he said.

Posted on Monday, November 16, 2009 at 11:17AM by Registered CommenterElaine in | CommentsPost a Comment | References1 Reference

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