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A new report says Canadians’ average net worth has topped $400,000. (JONATHAN HAYWARD/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
A new report says Canadians’ average net worth has topped $400,000. (JONATHAN HAYWARD/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Canadians getting richer, average net worth tops $400,000 Add to ...

Forget last decade’s pesky recession: Canadians’ net worth is at a record high.

The average household net worth broke $400,000 at the end of 2012, beating out our American neighbours once again. But the gap has narrowed to half of what it was last year, sitting at about $19,000, if the dollars held at par.

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Nova Scotians played the markets better than the rest of Canadians, but Ontarians netted the most money, thanks in part to their ability to pare down debts. They saw an average 8.2-per-cent growth in average net worth over the course of last year, and were the only province to actually lower consumer, or non-mortgage, debt. And Saskatchewan is a rising star, with its natural resources bolstering wages and real estate values, coming in just behind Ontario in net-worth gains.

These are among the findings of the sixth-annual Wealthscapes study, which uses a database of financial and investment statistics from sources including financial reports, Statistics Canada and the Bank of Canada to assess Canadians’ financial well-being.

Compiled by Environics Analytics, a Toronto-based data analytics firm, the sixth-annual neighbourhood-level analysis finds some Canadian cities are riding age-old trends, while others buck norms and surge into new levels of wealth. Here are five highlights from the research:

1. We saw an upswing (for wealth, at least)

Canadians spent much of 2011 with their heads still stuck in the sand after the financial crisis. And on paper, we didn’t actually fare that well in 2012: Our chief financial market, the TSX, only posted about 4-per-cent gains, while real GDP rose only 1.8 per cent.

But the rest of the world finally started recovering last year, save for some blips in Europe and a pesky thing everyone called a “fiscal cliff.” And Canadians rode this recovery, says Peter Miron, who helmed the Wealthscapes study for Environics Analytics. “They used to describe U.S. fortunes as tied to GM,” he says. “Well, ours are tied with the U.S.”

As a whole, Canadians saw their prosperity rise by 5.8 per cent in 2012. Americans saw a jump, too, cutting the impressive lead in net worth Canada took last year by half. But if they overtake us, Mr. Miron says, that shouldn’t be seen as a problem. “If they do, it probably means their economy is booming, so we’ve got other reasons to laugh.”

In the meantime, we can feel smug having broken the $400,000 net-worth barrier before them. In fact, all of the report’s key statistics – net worth, liquid assets, real estate assets, and debt, too – are at an all-time high. “Everything tends to be the highest these days,” Mr. Miron says. The good news about the debt, he says, is that low interest rates are making their way through the system to consumers, who are able to pay down debts more easily, slowing the national rate of debt growth.

Cristian deRitis, senior director of credit analytics with Moody’s Analytics, says he’s seen this trend in Canada. “There’s more of an awareness on the part of consumers to be prepared to get their finances back in line, in terms of incomes matching their debt positions,” he says.

2. Appetite for risk? Head east

In 2011, Nova Scotians played the market and got burned; they stuck to the stock market before it really recovered, spurring a 4.7-per-cent decline in household wealth. But they stuck to their guns, and it paid off in spades: Households in the province saw fund and stock portfolios gain 11 per cent last year, making Nova Scotia the province with the highest growth in liquid assets, at 7.7 per cent.

“I really love Nova Scotia,” Mr. Miron says. “They seem to be quite happy to take risks with their money. ... The markets went up, and they did quite well because of it. That’s pretty commendable.”

Mark Austin, who heads research with the Nova Scotia Commission on Building Our New Economy, says he hopes that Nova Scotians put their money back into the province. “Hopefully some of the growth in liquid assets can pay dividends by finding its way into investments into ourselves, our local economies and in creative ventures that link Nova Scotia goods and services with world markets,” Mr. Austin says.

3. It’s merry on the prairie

Alberta is on the cusp of passing its luck to its eastern neighbour. “Saskatchewan is definitely a booming province,” Mr. Miron says. “You see a lot more new wealth being generated.” That’s going into both real estate holdings (7.7-per-cent growth last year) and liquid assets like investments and savings deposits (7.4 per cent).

The boom in the province’s natural resources – including potash, oil, uranium and coal – saw Saskatchewan households gain 7.6 per cent in net worth last year, the biggest increase outside of Ontario. This trickled down to household prosperity through real estate gains and salary boosts. The capital, Regina, was the best-performing Canadian city in 2012, with an 11.2-per-cent gain in household net worth.

Saskatchewan’s strong performance makes sense in the context of its growing economy, says Robert Kavcic, senior economist with Bank of Montreal. “Net worth from housing equity is seeing strong growth there,” he says, and “wage growth is stronger than in many other provinces.” Households in the province could have seen even more impressive asset gains, though, had they not also accumulated a lot of debt. Saskatchewan residents racked up 7.4 per cent more debt on average last year, about $100,437 per household.

4. Ontarians slashing their debts

Ontario’s not actually the centre of the universe, but Wealthscapes points out at least one good reason for its residents to gloat: Ontarians paid down more debt than the rest of the country in 2012, giving them the highest rise in net worth last year.

Their average household net worth rose 8.2 per cent to $464,693. Ontarians’ mortgage debt rose at about the same rate as the rest of Canadians', at 4.9 per cent, but it’s their consumer debt – like credit cards and lines of credit – that had the most startling effect. Ontario is the only province in Canada to decrease its average household consumer debt, which fell 3.6 per cent in 2012. And Toronto had the highest drop in consumer debt of all the major cities, at 5 per cent.

“When I saw those numbers, I double-checked many times over,” Mr. Miron says. “In the past six or seven years, I’ve not seen this in any province.”

5. Vancouver’s still on top

Vancouverites can boast the highest net worth of all Canadians, largely thanks to their “out-of-this-world” real-estate market, Mr. Miron says. Household net worth was $662,600 last year, with about 65 per cent of assets tied up in real estate - about 5 percentage points higher than the national average.

Calgarians have the second-highest net worth in Canada, at $620,607 per household. But they’re also burdened with the most debt of any city: nearly $200,000 per home. (Alberta, as a whole, is taking a while to recover from the financial crisis, the study says.)

The top net-worth rankings may be due for a shake-up, according to the study. Vancouver, Calgary and third-ranked Toronto have average net worths within 7.2 per cent of one another. What brings them together? Those ultra-high real-estate holdings.

Montreal and Ottawa, meanwhile, saw “just average” increases to net worth, according to the report. The Quebec city was burdened because households took on more debt last year, while the nation’s capital was hampered by a below-average increase in liquid assets. And Quebec City also failed to make big marks – it maintained its status as the least affluent of Canada’s 10 biggest cities, helped last year by the largest rise in household debt (7.6 per cent) of any major city.

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