Thursday, January 7, 2010

The Perfect Storm

Greetings all! We're going to do something a little different today, and that's very interesting... or at least I think it's interesting. I'm going to take a look at the changes the CMHC made, how it affected lending and even touch on why what happened here wasn't all that different than what happened in the US. I was meaning to get this done a bit faster, but turns out it's a little more time consuming than I thought it would be, 'tis complicated stuff.

Before we start, I compiled this little graph as something of an all-in-one backgrounder for this post. The contents are nothing that hasn't been discussed ad nauseam already on this blog. This is just so you can consult for reference. So here that is.

Background Info
This is all concerning Edmonton. We have median household incomes, median single-family-home prices and average 5-year fixed rate mortgage interest rate. Incomes and home prices are inflation adjusted, and are in 2007 dollars. Why 2007? Well, that's what the data set came in for incomes, and to compile the final graph I could not adjust it... and frankly it's close enough to today's dollars, All figures in this post are in 2007 dollars.

CHMC Changes and Effects
Enough of that, on to the good stuff. This is a graph documenting the changes in CMHC lending standards, and it's effect on how much money a person could qualify for. These percentages hold true whether you make $1/year or $1,000,000/year, so income level have no effect on this measure.

We set our base effect (0%) as the maximum amount one could qualify for going into 2006 when amortizations were limited to 25 years. We're using 6% as a steady interest rate through the entire period. We know in reality they float, but for theoretical and practical purposes we'll use 6%, and as we could see in the first graph interest rates were generally right around 6% from '03 through early '09 (and are likely to return there once the "emergency rates" expire).

For example a person, lets call him Dave, is making $60,000 a year, could qualify for about $250,000 in financing assuming he has no debts in January of 2006 or any time early. Just for example purposes, and to use a nice round number.

In March '06 we saw the first mandated change, and that was extending amortizations to 30 years. That change allows Dave to qualify for ~7.5% or ~$18,500 more than he did before. They also dropped the need for a 5% downpayment, unfortunately the effects of that can't really be quantified. We'll discuss it's grander effects a bit later, but for our purposes here we just kind of ignore it.

So we jump ahead a few months to June. Here Harper and Co. really open the flood gates. Sure they again extend amortizations another 5 years, now to 35... but the real coup de gras was insuring interest-only mortgages. That one blew the doors right off.

Here I split the line just so we can see the effects of the amortization extensions (green line), as other wise they would be lost in the effect of interest-only payments. The move to 35 year ams would have allowed Dave to borrow another ~5.5% above and beyond. So he could now borrow 13% or $32,500 more than he could five months earlier.

We follow that green line a little further, and in November the feds started insuring 40 year amortizations. That allows Dave to borrow another 4.1% (notice the diminishing returns on the 5 year extensions?), and that's 17.1% more than he could borrow less than a year prior. For a guy making $60,000/year, that's another $42,750 in financing he could qualify for. No small increase.

Of course that's nothing compared to what the interest-only option offers. That route offered 28.9% more financing (or about $72,000 for Dave). Now we consider that this financing wasn't just available to Dave, but to everyone in Canada.

We recall that real estate in Edmonton (and Alberta as a whole) was pretty hot in '05. It was the talk of the town, everything was selling and the economy was cooking... then we hit '06 the feds take an axe to lending standards, and over the first six months all these hormonal consumers find themselves with greatly increasing levels of available financing.

Now go back to the first graph, and notice that is right when real estate prices start going vertical. It's not a coincidence. Real estate was on hot, but a controlled burn and sustainable... but all this suddenly available financing just threw gas on it... and at this point it just became a perfect storm.

Buyer Pool
Obviously when available financing increases in a big way... so does the pool of potential buyers. I apologize that you need to use your imagination a little with this graph. The incomes breakdowns are only available on an annual basis, so gains made over the year really cannot be represented other than those jumps. Really we're only focusing on 2006 though, the rest are just there for reference sake.

This is a graph of the percentage of households that can qualify for $200,000 of financing at 6% interest (again, assuming no other debts). Up until '05 it was steadily around 57% of households as incomes were stable. Then in '06, incomes jumped an impressive 8.5% ($4800) YoY... this yield a 3.8% improvement in households that qualify. It's important to note that relationship. If we follow the blue line further (it's conditions are held constant with 25yr ams) we could see another 4.2% ($2600) YoY improvement in incomes in '07, yielding a 3% improvement in qualifications.

Now we compare that to the effects changes in lending standards had on qualifications. Extending amortizations to 30 years increased qualifications by about 2.6%... 35 years was another 2.4%... and finally 40 years was another 1.5%. So if amortizations were merely lengthened from 25 year to 40 years it would have increased qualifying households by 6.5% in total. In Edmonton that represents about 32,000 households, which is by itself a VERY big one year increase in potential demand.

But again, like the prior measure, it was the interest-only option that blew the doors off. That option rocketed up the qualifying population to 74.4%, an increase of 14.1% over what it was just five months prior, and representing an influx of roughly 69,000 households that wouldn't have otherwise qualified for that much financing.

Obviously that figures is theoretical, as credit scores would disqualify several, most already own, some aren't looking, etc etc. So, you can just throw out that 69,000 figure. But assuming standard distribution the percentages should be fairly accurate over what had previously been available... in fact, if anything they're understated.

You see, typically the required downpayment would be a limiting factor to buying. So, even if one could qualify for sufficient financing to purchase, they still needed to have a downpayment and this kept many potential first time buyers from buying... but one of the first lending requirements stripped was effectively removing the need for downpayments by allowing them to be borrowed. This not only further opened the door, but opened it to much riskier borrowers, ones without a established savings and those without skin in the game.

Obviously that effect can't be easily quantified, but it was just one more control eliminated that allowed the housing market to bubble out of control. People no longer needed to plan or save to earn the right to buy... they could just pop down to the bank, piggyback a couple loans and have themselves a house. Hell, they didn't even have to be able to cover closing costs.

That's why those that argue that the mere absence of widespread "subprime" loans means we're not in a bubble like the US is missing the forest for the trees. Look at their overall effect... they allowed people to a) borrow more money than they would otherwise have, and b) allowed more people to borrow money. So maybe we didn't have as many "subprime" loans... instead we just kept lowering the bar for prime until it had the same effect.

They had an influx of new demand, and with it an expanding pool of available financing (of which lowering interest rates only further expanded)... that will heat up real estate markets, and then it just becomes a vicious cycle and feeds itself until all fundamentals have been so far bypassed the only thing supporting the market is it's own momentum... and when that runs out, Wile E. Coyote meets gravity.

That's not to say the effect of these new loans, or "innovations" should be ignored, their entrance into the market will certainly an increase in prices and new equilibrium... the problem is they also often cause overheating of the market and drastic overshooting of the that new equilibrium (remember these innovations also come with increased risk).

For example, in Edmonton prior to the boom typically 60% of households could finance and amount equal to the median home value in the, city and that number was steady for many years... at the peak even using the most exotic financing arrangements, only 39% could. If you limited to the loosest of what is offered today after the feds tightened standards that would drop to 36%. A very big shift, and unsustainable.

Today with "emergency" interest rates and prices having fallen from the peak and figuring in continued income growth the median home can currently be financed by about 50% of households. Better than it was, but still a ways to go before getting back to 60%... and interest rates shoot up much (even back to historical norms) it would take a great big bite out of that improvement (not to mention if amortizations get shortened to 30 years or tighten up downpayment rules).

The exact causes here may have varied between nations in name, but the effects were all the same. One must focus on the big picture and not tiny details. The lending bar was lowered... the amount of available credit exploded... demand explodes... supply is pinched short term... prices start rising... and the bubble becomes self feeding. Then add to that our human behavioural economics... mob mentality, speculation, irrational exuberance, etc, and it's a lethal brew.

About the only thing that actually is different here is we don't have to worry about our entire financial system collapsing as a result of the housing bubble popping... you see, the taxpayers have been on the hook for this one all along. Lucky us!