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(Christopher O Driscoll/iStockphoto)
(Christopher O Driscoll/iStockphoto)

Canadians richer than ever, and cutting back on mortgage debt Add to ...

Canadians are getting the message on their ugly debt levels, at the same time as their wealth increases.

Mortgage debt in Canada rose just 0.6 per cent in the first quarter of the year, to $1.1-trillion, marking the slowest pace since the depths of the financial crisis in early 2009, Statistics Canada said.

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The key measure of leverage, or household credit market debt to disposable income, also improved again in the first three months, albeit by baby steps.

That debt burden now stands at 163.2 per cent, having inched down from 163.9 per cent in last three months of 2013, and, significantly, from its record high of 164.1 per cent in the third quarter of last year. Consumer credit, meanwhile, edged down 0.3 per cent to $507-billion.

Over all, Statistics Canada said, we’re getting wealthier as we begin to curb our appetite for debt amid record-low interest rates.

We need to keep in mind, of course, that headline numbers such as these mask the income inequality across the country and the fact that 1.3 million people are out of work. And many people are in part-time positions.

Having said that, national net worth climbed 1.5 per cent in the first quarter to $7.8-trillion, or $221,300 on a per-capita basis.

Among Canadian families, that showing was even better as household net worth increased 2.5 per cent to a record high $7.9-trillion, pumped up by stocks, particularly those in mutual funds.

Rising house prices also played a role.

On a per-capita basis, net worth at the household level is now $222,600.

“This primarily reflected continued strength in domestic stock markets during the quarter,” the federal agency said.

“The increase in household net worth was also supported by a 2-per-cent gain the value of household real estate.”

This all means that household net worth stands at 726 per cent of disposable income, noted chief economist Douglas Porter of BMO Nesbitt Burns.

“Though often overshadowed by the debt headlines, big gains in the asset side of the balance sheet may well be the bigger story at this point of the cycle,” Mr. Porter said.

“With the TSX finally capturing a new record high just yesterday, that train is still chugging in favour of household finances,” he added.

Along with the debt burden easing slightly, the ability to juggle those debts also remained easy, with the household debt service ratio staying at “historically low levels," Statistics Canada said.

Today’s report, said economist Laura Cooper of Royal Bank of Canada, supports the Bank of Canada’s recent comments that consumer debt levels are gradually coming into line.

Household credit growth, she noted, slowed to 4.2 per cent, compared to a year earlier, marking the lowest pace since 2001.

“With housing market activity set to cool after a likely short-lived weather-related bounce in the spring, a further slowing in mortgage credit growth along with firmer income gains are expected to keep a lid on the debt-to-income ratio in the quarters ahead,” Ms. Cooper said.

“While the debt-to-income ratio remains historically elevated, the mild improvement in the condition of household balance sheets will insure that a precipitous deterioration in households’ ability to service their debts is less likely,” she added.

Homeowner equity also inched up, to almost 70 per cent, marking its highest in four years.

Higher asset prices, said Mr. Porter, also brought down the Canadian debt-to-asset ratio to 18.6 per cent, the lowest in six years though still higher than the levels before the recession.

“Flipping that ratio on its head, this implies that Canadian households have $5.39 of assets for every $1 of debt,” he said.

Follow on Twitter: @michaelbabad

 

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