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Housing market shows spunk, even in $1-million range (Not you, Vancouver) Add to ...

These are stories Report on Business is following Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2013.

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January kind to real estate
One month does not a trend make, but sales numbers coming in from across Canada show a January housing market with some spunk still.

“The January home sales results are rolling in across Canada’s major cities, and year-over-year growth looks much improved from December’s 17.9-per-cent year-over-year dive in the major markets,” said economist Robert Kavcic of BMO Nesbitt Burns.

National numbers won’t be reported by the Canadian Real Estate Association until mid-February, but local boards have started to post their January results.

As The Globe and Mail’s Tara Perkins reports, the Toronto Real Estate Board reported yesterday that sales in January slipped by only 1.3 per cent from a year earlier, following December’s year-over-year slump of more than 20 per cent.

Sales in Calgary, meanwhile, the one standout city in the country, picked up steam, climbing more than 15 per cent, and Edmonton registered a gain of 3 per cent.

Notable, said Mr. Kavcic, is that sales of homes over $1-million climbed by 3.5 per cent in January, though there aren’t a lot of those.

“The surging equity market certainly isn’t hurting the high end of the market,” he added.

Having said that, Mr. Kavcic also pointed out that last month’s numbers are being compared to a “very weak month” a year earlier, while there was also one more business day factored into the latest sales figures.

Still, the latest January sales come after months of a cooling market, driven lower, deliberately, by a fresh round of mortgage restrictions brought in by Finance Minister Jim Flaherty in July. And even as sales slipped and new listings were hit, prices held up.

But … not so fast, Vancouver.

Vancouver is seen as the one market where a “soft landing” wasn’t in the cards. But even there, January’s sales decline, of more than 14 per cent, was markedly slower than December’s 30 per cent.

Prices in Vancouver have lost 6 per cent from their peak last May, though BMO says that January’s drop of 11 per cent in new listings could “ultimately temper the price declines.”

RBS settles Libor probe
Royal Bank of Scotland, once the model for a global bank, has reached a wide-ranging settlement in the probe over manipulation of key interest rates.

It’s the latest settlement in the probe over rigging of the London Interbank Offered Rate, or Libor.

"The RBS board acknowledges that there were serious shortcomings in our systems and controls and also in the integrity of a small group of our employees,” RBS chairman Phillip Hampton said in a statement.
“This is a sad day for RBS, but also an important one in continuing to put right the mistakes of the past,” he added.

"We have to fix the culture in the banking industry. The most important part of that is focusing our efforts on the needs of our customers and acting with integrity. And it also involves facing up to the Bank's past failings, no matter how uncomfortable that is.”

RBS agreed to pay more than $600-million in the deal with authorities in Britain and the United States surrounding Libor, Swiss Franc Libor and Yen Libor, saying the probe found wrongdoing by 21 employees, largely in the latter two rates.

It will also plead guilty in Japan to wire fraud.

“The findings also highlight serious failures in the controls and risk management systems RBS had in place,” the bank said.

“However, none of the regulators in question concluded that RBS, as a firm, had engaged in any deliberate misconduct,” it added.

“There are no findings that anyone beyond individual traders and, in some instances, their immediate supervisors, was aware of, or instructed, any deliberate manipulation of submissions, nor is there any finding that RBS suppressed Libor submissions at the direction of senior management.”

Of the 21 people involved, six have been fired, including two managers, while six other are being disciplined. Eight left the bank earlier.

Today’s settlement is the latest in a series of black eyes for the banking industry, which has lurched from scandal to scandal even after the financial crisis.

“The integrity of Libor depends on truthful information provided by a select group of some of the world’s most important banks,” said David Meister, director of enforcement at the U.S. commodity Futures Trading Commission, as he announced the CFTC’s part of the settlement.

“The public is deprived of an honest benchmark interest rate when a group of traders sits around a desk for years falsely spinning their bank’s Libor submissions, trying to manufacture winning trades. That’s what happened at RBS.”

Oil sands project troubled
Canada's Suncor Energy Inc. has taken a hit of almost $1.5-billion on its Voyageur project, a massive oil sands plant that is now at serious risk of cancellation, The Globe and Mail's Nathan VanderKlippe reports.

The $11.6-billion Voyageur upgrader is designed to process 200,000 barrels per day of heavy oil sands bitumen into a lighter oil. The project was 15 per cent built, and Suncor had already spent $3.5-billion, when Suncor halted work in 2009.

“Suncor’s view is that the economic outlook for the Voyageur upgrader project is challenged,” the company said in a statement last night as it posted a quarterly loss of $562-million or 37 cents a share.

"The partners have been considering options for the project, including the implications of cancellation or indefinite deferral," it added.

WestJet hikes dividend
WestJet Airlines Ltd. today posted a stronger fourth-quarter profit, and boosted its quarterly dividend to 10 cents from 8 cents.

The Calgary-based airline earned $60.9-million, or 46 cents a share, compared to $35.6-million or 26 cents a year earlier, The Globe and Mail's Guy Dixon reports. For the year, WestJet earned $242.4-million, or $1.78, also up sharply from 2011.

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