Why Canada's housing market didn't burst (Part II)
Why was the subprime market in Canada smaller?
Given the key role played by the "subprime" market, the question is why the Canadian subprime market was both smaller and levels of securitization were lower than in the U.S. While it is difficult to disentangle the reasons why Canada avoided the subprime boom, some factors can be identified that may have contributed to the differences in the Canadian and U.S. subprime markets.
Perhaps the simplest story is that Canada was lucky to be a late adopter of U.S. innovations rather than an innovator in mortgage finance. While the subprime share of the Canadian market was small, it was growing rapidly prior to the onset of the U.S. subprime crisis. In response to the U.S. crisis, some subprime lenders exited the Canadian market due to difficulties in securing funding. In addition, the Canadian government moved in July 2008 to tighten the standards for mortgage insurance required for high LTV loans originated by federally regulated financial institutions.
This further limited the ability of Canadian banks to directly offer subprime-type products to borrowers.
There are also several institutional details that played a role. For one, the Canadian market lacks a counterpart to Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, both of which played a significant role in the growth of securitization in the U.S.
Secondly, bank capital regulation in Canada treats off-balance sheet vehicles more strictly than the U.S., and the stricter treatment reduces the incentive for Canadian banks to move mortgage loans to off-balance sheet vehicles. Finally, government-mandated mortgage insurance for high LTV loans issued by Canadian banks effectively made it impossible for banks to offer certain subprime products. This likely slowed the growth of the subprime market in Canada, as nonbank intermediaries had to organically grow origination networks.
The Canada-U.S. comparison suggests the low interest rate policy of the central banks in both countries contributed to the housing boom over 2001-2006, but that a relaxation of lending standards in the U.S. was the critical factor in setting the stage for the housing bust.
A caveat worth emphasizing, however, is that it tells us little about what would have happened if U.S. monetary policy had been tighter earlier, as tighter monetary policy in the early part of the decade may have helped to limit the subprime boom by slowing the rate of house price appreciation over 2002-2006.
One thing the comparison does highlight, however, is the practical challenge facing policy-makers in assessing whether a rapid run-up in asset prices is actually a bubble, or just a sustainable movement in market prices.