Thursday, December 31, 2009


Happy New Year
Hard to believe we're on the cusp a new decade. I remember ten years ago spending Y2K renting out a cabin retreat out in the mountains with several friends from university, figuring if the world ended as feared we wouldn't find out for a couple days. Ah, the good old days when I had a liver and could drink until it seemed like a good idea to take my turn climbing into a giant culvert and getting pushed down a large rocky hill... and then wake up the next morning in good enough spirits to do it all again.

The future leaders of this fine nation my friends!

Don't laugh, two of those guys that have already been elected to parliament... and I have enough dirt on either to bring them down. Of course there are many that have just as much on me, which is why you will never see me running for any sort of office. I'm just eternally grateful digital technology was still in its infancy, mere hazy memories from the fellow conspirators is too much documentation for my taste... god forbid if we had camera phones and youtube...

Anyway, 2009, what a year huh? Started with economic uncertainty and parliament prorogued... okay, so maybe we haven't made a lot of movement on that front. But we do now have governments running massive deficits, even here in Alberta, record low interest rates, and all signs pointing to a national housing bubble all of our own (though we trend-setters here in the West were already well ahead of the curve on that one!).

Somewhat surprising considering we here in Edmonton (and most of the country for that matter) started the year with the lowest 1st quarter sales tally in at least a decade (and this coming of 4Q '08 which was the worst quarterly tally, period). With the economy as a whole tanking it was no surprise the US Fed pulled out the old Greenspan Put, not surprising because that's been their only response to economic lag in the last twenty years... what did surprise was the extent to which rates were cut, right down to zero. Of course the Bank of Canada followed suit (as if they had a choice), as did most the rest of the developed world.

What's even more troubling is the world seemingly following Japan's lead on how to deal with a collapsing asset bubble... and tried to prop up the banks, bail out the fools holding the junk entirely at the expense of the taxpayer, and keeping the toxic assets in the system... an approach that left Japan bleeding their way to a slow agonizing death.

Rather than, say, follow the Sweden's lead (whom also had economic troubles in the early 90's) who restructured their troubled banks, made those that made bad investments eat their losses and came out the other side with well capitalized banks and an economy that's actually shown signs of life. Of course that sounds way too much like capitalism to ever work in the US (its amazing how quickly those champions of the free market on Wall St. became screaming welfare queens the moment their chickens came home to roost, wasn't it?!).

Any who, that's a story for another day... as the year progressed interest rates hit all time lows, and here in the Great White North it sent the populous into a real estate frenzy. Even in Edmonton, still in the hangover from the bubble that just popped in 2007 houses started moving at a near record clip. The worst 1st Quarter in a decade was followed by the the 3rd best 2Q and 2nd best 3Q ever (FWIW, the 4Q will either be 2nd or 3rd best depending on December, and the year on the whole will be the 3rd best on record, just behind the bubblicious '06 and '07).

Fortunately for us the inventory hangover saved us from much price escalation. Prices today are still roughly what they were in January... the same can't be said for many other markets. Toronto is up over 20%, Vancouver 15%, and even Calgary was up 5-10% despite being on much the same cycle as we are.

Only time will tell how these low interest induced purchases will play out, but with extensive rate hikes expected in the medium term there does remain a possibility with the Canadian mortgage structure that we could cause the same kind of 2/28 meltdown the US had. We could call 'em 5/30's.

And towards the end of the year as the housing bubble took hold in the densely populated (and hotly politically contested) Eastern provinces, it was suddenly getting increasing attention from the media and politicians. First it was Mark Carney trying to work the same magic he had talking down the dollar, trying to talk down real estate... and now we've even got Jim Flaherty threatening to drop the hammer and scale back amortization periods and/or raise downpayment requirements.

If he pulls that out during the spring budget, then interest rate hikes start hitting in the summer that would really slam the breaks on sales and prices... but rest assured we won't see the former without banks, builders, agents, etc screaming bloody murder. They'll yell and stamp their feet protesting intervention and trumpet the free-market... of course this is the same bunch that lobbied long and hard to have the government intervene and strip standards earlier in the decade. The real free market solution would be abolish the CMHC altogether and let the market truly dictate rates and credit worthiness... and the mere notion of that would have those groups shitting bricks, so we know how free market they really are.

Looking back, 2009 was an incredibly eventful year, yet didn't really tell us much. Thus far the governments approach to solving debt problems is more debt, kind of like trying to drink oneself sober I guess. Speaking from experience though, that don't work, but what do I know? It seems 2010 will be a really interesting one on the real estate front too... as will 2011 and likely 2012 for that matter. So stay tuned, it's gonna be a bumpy ride!

Have a safe and happy New Years everyone!