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Week In Review

Nouriel Roubini (a.k.a Dr. Doom) warns of frothy Canadian housing market Add to ...

These are stories Report on Business followed this week.

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Canada's housing market is getting a lot of attention, with something of a divide taking shape.

Most Canadian economists believe the residential real estate sector is headed for a soft landing, not a U.S.-style meltdown, while many outside observers warn that the market is looking awfully frothy.

Several outside groups say Canada is home to one of the world's frothiest markets. The latest to weigh in is Nouriel Roubini, the economist nicknamed Dr. Doom who famously predicted the financial crisis and who wrote this week in The Guardian about "housing bubble 2.0."

"Now, five years later, signs of frothiness, if not outright bubbles, are reappearing in housing markets in Switzerland, Sweden, Norway, Finland, France, Germany, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and, back for an encore, the U.K. (well, London)," said Mr. Roubini, a New York University economics professor and chairman of Roubini Global Economics.

"In emerging markets, bubbles are appearing in Hong Kong, Singapore, China, and Israel, and in major urban centres in Turkey, India, Indonesia, and Brazil," he added.

"Signs that home prices are entering bubble territory in these economies include fast-rising home prices, high and rising price-to-income ratios, and levels of mortgage debt as a share of household debt."

Certainly, that last bit is a big problem in Canada, and a headache for policy makers, though credit growth has slowed noticeably.

Canada's housing slumped after the federal government engineered a slowdown with new mortgage insurance restrictions in the summer of 2012.

But, as The Globe and Mail's Tara Perkins has documented, it has since rebounded, with the latest numbers this week showing strong sales in several key cities.

Among them were Toronto, where sales climbed 14 per cent in November from a year earlier, Vancouver, up 38 per cent, and Calgary, up 19 per cent.

"Based on trends in October in the rest of the country, we are likely looking at a national sales gain of around 7 per cent year-over-year for November," said chief economist Douglas Porter of BMO Nesbitt Burns.

"True, a bit less piping hot that earlier in the fall, and true last November was weak, but the main point is that sales are holding up very well."

Prices are also "holding up very well indeed," Mr. Porter added, noting average price gains of 11 per cent in Toronto.

For its part, the Bank of Canada, which had long been troubled by the record debts of Canadian families, said this week it "continues to expect a soft landing in the housing market."

And in a report this week, BMO looked at four cities, and projected no real trouble, though there are some soft spots.

Here's what senior economist Sal Guatieri expects:

Calgary: "Strong economic and population growth will encourage an upward tend in Calgary's house prices, though higher borrowing costs will moderate the gains."

Toronto: "The looming supply of condos, high valuations of detached homes, elevated levels of household debt and expected higher interest rates should cool price gains in 2014, even as new immigrant and echo boomers provide support. Toronto house prices are at risk of declining moderately when interest rates normalize."

Vancouver: "We expect condo prices to remain flat in 2014, as healthy demographic demand from echo boomers and immigrants counters the downward pull from a moderately high number of vacant unsold units. While condos account for nearly three-quarters of new home construction in the Vancouver region, overbuilding is not severe. In fact, total housing starts, normalized for population growth, have stayed below long-term norms for the past three years."

Montreal: "Montreal's house prices are expected to hold steady in 2014 ... Elevated unemployment suggests the city could attract fewer young job seekers and potential home buyers than the western provinces in the year ahead."

This doesn't mean that the market doesn't bear watching closely.

"The main message is that the housing market remains incredibly resilient," said BMO's Mr. Porter. "The BoC officially called for a soft landing ... however, the longer this runs, the greater the risks."

The week's top news
Barrick Gold Corp. overhauled its boardroom, with founder and chairman Peter Munk bowing out, along with other long-time directors. Read Rachelle Younglai's report and her exclusive, wide-ranging interview with Canada's king of gold.

Mr. Munk wasn't the only Canadian business veteran to call it quits. Gordon Nixon also announced he would retire as chief executive officer of Royal Bank of Canada next summer, to be succeeded by Dave McKay, who's now the chief of personal and commercial banking. Tim Kiladze and Eric Reguly report.

Governor Stephen Poloz and his Bank of Canada colleagues unveiled no policy changes this week, but they did get somewhat more dovish and cited the fact that the fierce competition among retailers is adding to their woes with low inflation. Their dovish tone knocked the dollar lower.

Potash Corp. of Saskatchewan unveiled plans to cut 18 per cent of its workforce and scale back some production. As Eric Atkins reports, the layoffs are expected to cost $70-million. This also led to something of a tiff between the company and Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall, who said workers are being “sacrificed” while the Potash dividend remains untouched.

Carl Icahn struck a deal with Talisman Energy Inc. to get two people on the board. Samuel Merksamer and Jonathan Christodoro are both managing directors at Icahn Capital LP. Mr. Icahn, who owns about 7 per cent of Talisman stock, has agreed to “certain standstill restrictions."

The week in Business Briefing

The week in Streetwise (for subscribers)

The week in Economy Lab

The week in ROB Insight (for subscribers)

Required reading
Dundee Precious Metals Inc. new technological leaps are attracting the attention of some of the world's biggest miners. Eric Reguly reports from Chelopech, Bulgaria, where a wireless phone actually works almost a half kilometre below impenetrable rock.

Struggling with a tough job market, Generation Y is beginning to approach the direct-selling model as a viable career option. Stephanie Chan reports.

The falling Canadian dollar is helping many Canadian companies, but hedges put in place to limit the effect is muting some benefits, Richard Blackwell and Tavia Grant write.

Some of Canada's most promising tech startups were in San Francisco this week for a conference that linked them with investors and mentors. Omar El Akkad reports.

Follow on Twitter: @michaelbabad

 
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