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The Week

Housing: ‘The feared collapse just has not occurred’ Add to ...

These are stories Report on Business followed this week.

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How real estate market is slowing
Vancouver aside, Canada’s housing market appears to be pulling off a somewhat orderly retreat.

Indeed, says economist David Rosenberg, “what has really caught my eye is the housing data, as the feared collapse just has not occurred despite pockets of acute weakness in the Vancouver and Toronto condo markets.”

Canada’s real estate market has been cooling rapidly since Finance Minister Jim Flaherty brought in a fresh round of mortgage restrictions in July, an attempt to head off a bubble and tame the borrowing binge among consumers.

But January sales numbers from some of the major cities, The Globe and Mail’s Tara Perkins reports, show the market holding relatively stead, for one month, at least.

Sales in the Toronto area dipped in January by just 1.3 per cent from a year earlier, a far better showing than the year-over-year slump of more than 20 per cent in December.

“On the single-family front, average prices are actually up 4.3 per cent year-on-year and that would not be the case if the market was in some radical excess supply situation,” said Mr. Rosenberg, the chief economist at Gluskin Sheff + Associates.

Note, too, that sales of homes in the $1-million and up range rose by 3.5 per cent in January.

Sales in Calgary, meanwhile, climbed by more than 15 per cent, while Edmonton is up 3 per cent. Even Vancouver, which has gone beyond a soft landing and where prices are down 6 per cent from their peak, registered a slower pace of decline.

One has to keep in mind that the numbers compare to a particularly weak showing in January, 2012, and that the condo markets have taken a notable hit, but none of the signs point to a housing meltdown.

Building permits and residential construction starts have also taken a hit, according to fresh readings this week, but they tend to be volatile and would lag a slowdown in sales of existing homes.

On Friday, Statistics Canada reported that housing starts slowed rapidly last month, to an annual pace of just 160,577, well down from December and the second month in a row below 200,000.

Condo construction drove that decline.

While the drop was precipitous, down from 197,118 in December, the trend is one of moderation.

Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp.’s six-month moving average puts the annual pace at 203,208.

“After hitting a recent peak of 228,300 annualized units last August, new home construction established a decidedly downward trend in the last five months of 2012 and today’s report indicates that this has carried into 2013,” economist Laura Cooper of Royal Bank of Canada said Friday.

“While the magnitude of the decline was larger than anticipated in January, the trend rate of starts reported by the CMHC in the report accompanying today’s release (which better controls for the monthly volatility in the series) showed a much more modest decline (to 203,000 from 212,000 in December) which remains consistent with our viewpoint that the Canadian housing sector is undergoing a gradual cooling as the market transitions to more sustainable levels of activity.”

Ms. Cooper projects a total 185,000 construction starts this year, and 175,000 in 2013.

The penny drops. Literally
Canada killed off its lowly penny this week, setting in motion its gradual disappearance.

The coins can still be used, but only at stores that will take them, Marina Strauss reports. They can also be taken to a bank or given to charity, the government says. You can also just leave them on your dresser until the next time you move house.

The cent still exists as a concept where credit and debit are concerned. It's only in cash deals where amounts are now to be rounded up or down. And, of course, it  still exists where the government's concerned because the GST and HST will be calculated to the penny and added to the price. So only the overall total is rounded.

Finance Minister Jim Flaherty may have killed off the penny in his last budget, but he still wants every cent due.

Shades of the crisis
The financial industry continues to suffer body blows.

On one front, The Globe and Mail's Joanna Slater reports, the U.S. government went after Standard & Poor's via a $5-billion (U.S.) civil lawsuit alleging the group pumped up ratings and underplayed risks with mortgage securities. Seventeen state governments are also suing.

S&P responded aggressively, saying the suit has no merit and that authorities "cherry picked" e-mails to paint an incorrect picture.

Separately, Royal Bank of Scotland struck a settlement worth more than $600-million to settle allegations from the widespread probe into manipulation of the London Interbank Offered Rate, a key interest rate known as Libor.

It's the second settlement in the investigation by U.S. and British authorities, this one largely involving Swiss Franc Libor and Yen Libor. The bank has fired several people, while others are being disciplined.

“This is a sad day for RBS, but also an important one in continuing to put right the mistakes of the past,” said RBS chairman Phillip Hampton.

"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.”

Apple in the crosshairs
A major U.S. investor is trying hard to upset the Apple cart.

Hedge fund manager David Einhorn's Greenlight Capital sued Apple this week, calling on the tech giant to pay out more of its $137-billion (U.S.) cash hoard to investors.

“Apple’s management team and board of directors have been in active discussions about returning additional cash to shareholders,” Apple responded in a statement. “As part of our review, we will thoroughly evaluate Greenlight Capital’s current proposal to issue some form of preferred stock.”

Suncor upgrader hit
Suncor Energy Inc. is writing off $1.5-billion of investment in its Voyageur oil sands upgrader, gambling that an easing in massive price discounts for bitumen will eat away profits from processing crude in Alberta, The Globe and Mail's Nathan VanderKlippe writes.

It’s an outlook that holds little comfort for Alberta and Ottawa, where political leaders have warned about the fiscal impact of depressed prices for bitumen, since Suncor‘s predictions are predicated on a coming glut of light oil in the United States, which stands to drive down overall crude prices on the continent.

For Suncor, the writedown is a costly bet that the so-called “bitumen bubble,” which has created a deep discount for heavy oil and choked off revenues, will soon pop. Coming years, Suncor says, hold a radically different outlook, one where heavy oil sands bitumen will prove more valuable.

Seven things
1. Ford of Canada has released six tips on how to "help make this Valentine's Day the most romantic." But they were all about things like navigation systems, new technology and fuel efficiency. Not doing it in the back seat.

2. Research note title of the week, from RBC Dominion Securities: "The assassination of 10s30s flatteners by the coward bear-steepener."

3. Gluskin Sheff chief economist David Rosenberg on the economy, the NHL and romance: "With the hockey players back on the ice, the service sector should now come out of the penalty box (though likely at the expense of marital intimacy on Saturday nights.)

4. Quote of the week, from ING economist Carsten Brzeski: “Even if it won’t be harmful for everyone, a strong euro is currently as useful for the economic recovery as a screen door in a submarine."

5. Sexy tweet of the week (1), from @katie_martin_FX: "A colleague just referred to Carney as 'the George Clooney of central bankers'"

6. Sexy tweet of the week (2), from @corporateethics "To quote our CEO, we want to bring the sexy back to manufacturing jobs" (Depends on what you're manufacturing)

7. From the Harvard School of Public Health, on a study released this week on the quality of sperm: "Results showed that men who watched more than 20 hours of TV weekly had a 44-per-cent lower sperm count than those who watched almost no TV. Men who exercised for 15 or more hours weekly at a moderate to vigorous rate had a 73-per-cent higher sperm count than those who exercised less than 5 hours per week. Mild exercise did not affect sperm quality."

In ROB Insight (for subscribers)

The week in Top Business Stories

Required reading
A lot of what was going wrong in the U.S. is about to start going right, Barrie McKenna writes, and Canada’s export-dependent economy will eventually be carried along for the ride.

Premier Pauline Marois is determined to see Quebec reduce its reliance on imported oil. And for a cash-strapped province that is cutting expenses in all departments to balance its books, extra oil royalties would ease some fiscal pain, Sophie Cousineau writes.

From Fort McMurray and other northern Alberta towns, West Edmonton Mall is attracting a surge of eager shoppers with fat pay cheques. Marina Strauss reports.

Some of Ontario's biggest companies, facing huge deficits in their pension plans, are turning to employees in a bid to help solve a deepening funding crisis, Greg Keenan and Janet McFarland report.

One member of Parliament called him a rock star, another compared him to the manager of England’s soccer team, Paul Waldie reports. Such has been the reception for Mark Carney as the incoming governor of the Bank of England, and some are beginning to wonder if the bar is now too high.

 

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