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Special investigation: How high-risk mortgages crept north Add to ...

- Critics, including former Bank of Canada governor David Dodge, say the lax mortgage policies only further stoked soaring house prices. As for mortgage insurance premiums, industry officials say rates remain virtually unchanged and could potentially rise as troubled U.S. players begin to retreat from Canada.

The story of how the U.S. housing crisis spread to Canada is a tale of carefully orchestrated U.S. corporate lobbying, failed public-policy promises and government inaction to numerous private and public warnings about reckless mortgage practices.

Few of these consequences appear to have been anticipated by either the government or the financial institutions pushing high-risk mortgages on the public.

"Quite honestly I was surprised [the 40-year mortgage]was seized upon so eagerly by the Canadian banks and borrowers," said a U.S. insurance executive who asked not to be named. "You hear all the usual excuses: 'It's a cash-flow management tool, people will pay off their mortgage ahead of time.' But in reality it just becomes a mechanism for borrowing more than you probably should have."

A FOOT IN THE DOOR

How did the staid world of mortgage insurance become the cradle of so much financial risk in the Canadian housing sector? It started almost by accident.

For nearly 40 years after CMHC was founded in 1954, the business of mortgage insurance was about as exciting as an actuarial table. The agency was set up by the federal government as a kind of financial cushion to encourage the country's conservative financial institutions to open their vaults and lend more money to homeowners.

If a home buyer couldn't pony up a 25-per-cent down payment on a house purchase, CMHC shouldered the risk of default by insuring the mortgage and charging the buyer an insurance premium. Backing CMHC's insurance policies was a 100-per-cent federal guarantee. In bad years, Ottawa piped money into CMHC; in good years, the agency added to the federal treasury by paying taxes.

The smooth working system hit a pothole in late 1988 when Canada's only other mortgage insurer at the time, Toronto-based MICC, was nearly wiped out by new international bank capital rules. The rules threatened to shutter MICC because they effectively made it cheaper for banks to use CMHC's government-guaranteed mortgage insurance.

Faced with the imminent collapse of Canada's only private-sector mortgage insurer, the then Conservative government went to a place that few other industrialized countries have gone by agreeing to guarantee the policies of a non-government mortgage insurer. According to people involved in the crisis, Ottawa "hesitantly" agreed to "taking on an enormous liability" of guaranteeing 90 per cent of MICC's insurance policies.

The government's worst fears about a massive liability materialized in 1995, when MICC's risky insurance bets in the construction sector threatened to torpedo the company. As Ottawa wrestled with the grim prospect of losing the insurer for millions of dollars in mortgages, the world's largest non-bank financial company came knocking with a rescue proposal.

The company was General Electric. The U.S. conglomerate was offering to take over MICC's mortgage insurance portfolio provided Ottawa met one condition: It would bless GE's planned new Canadian mortgage insurance subsidiary with a federal guarantee.

"It was a bit of a slam dunk," recalls one former Ottawa official. "GE was one of the strongest companies in the world."

Ottawa agreed to GE's offer, thereby shifting the federal government's 90-per- cent guarantee from a small Canadian mortgage insurer to a unit of a global giant with aggressive Canadian ambitions. GE's mortgage subsidiary, later spun off and renamed Genworth Mortgage Insurance Co., rapidly carved out a major presence in Canada, capturing about 30 per cent of the market and reporting $205-million of profits in 2005.

Other U.S. insurers took notice.

THE DOOR WIDENS

The days of a CMHC-Genworth duopoly were numbered. In the fall of 2005, a tiny paragraph buried in a 280-page federal government estimate of expenditures signalled a new era of competition in the industry.

The Finance Department's provision was considered so insignificant at the time that many staffers of the minister, Liberal MP Ralph Goodale, didn't recall it when contacted by The Globe. A current spokesman for the Saskatchewan MP insisted that the provision was not designed to open the market to riskier products.

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