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Why is the man who bet against U.S. housing so worried about Canada? Add to ...

These are stories Report on Business is following  Thursday, May 9, 2013.

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Eisman frets about Canada
A hedge fund manager who made a killing betting against the U.S. housing market is now publicly fretting about Canadian real estate.

Steven Eisman’s comments on Canada are arguably more important than those of other observers given that he put his money where his mouth was in the run-up to the U.S. meltdown, gaining renown and, eventually, becoming one of the players noted in The Big Short, the book by Michael Lewis.

Most observers believe that Canada’s housing market, while cooling rapidly, is in a soft landing, with the exception of Vancouver. Canada’s finance minister has moved several times to prevent a burst bubble and tame the mortgage market amid record levels of consumer debt.

At a conference in New York yesterday, Mr. Eisman, who founded Emrys Partners, noted the exceptional run-up in prices for Canada homes, deemed by the Economist as the most overvalued in the world.

He pointed specifically to Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp., according to published reports, warning that it’s closing in on a $600-billion ceiling for its portfolio.

“When something gets that big, even governments get nervous,” Mr. Eisman said, according to The New York Times, which covered yesterday’s annual Sohn Investment Conference.

The nation’s banks, he added, aren’t protected enough should housing collapse.

The hedge fund chief also cited Home Capital Group, which, among other things, is a non-prime lender, as a possible trouble spot.

Just yesterday, Toronto-listed Home Capital posted a jump in quarterly profit to $59.7-million, or $1.72 a share, from $52.5-million, or $1.50, a year earlier, and said it believes Canada’s housing markets are “in balanced territory” and still healthy.

“While the company experienced overall originations below the last quarter of 2012, the activity was within management's expectations given seasonality and the slower start to the spring housing market this year,” it said.

“The company continues to observe good demand for its traditional mortgage products from customers with strong credit profiles and originations in this product were up over the same period last year. The company anticipates that demand for its traditional products to continue to be robust, but recognizes that over all markets have softened and demand could be reduced in future quarters. Management is prepared to adjust its strategy in such a situation.”

While the housing market has cooled, most, though not all, economists say there’s no crash in the offing.

“Tougher mortgage rules, high household debt and reduced affordability in some regions have taken the wind out of the housing market’s sales, though most signs point to a soft rather than hard landing,” BMO Nesbitt Burns says in a new forecast, citing the 15-per-cent in drop in existing home sales in March from a year earlier, but “milder declines” in some regions last month.

“That’s not a bad outcome after a 10-year boom that took ownership rates to record highs and house prices up two-fold,” BMO added.

“Builders have responded to softer demand by slowing construction in line with household formations.”

The key measure of household debt to disposable income in Canada stands at about 165 per cent, and the Bank of Canada sees it stabilizing there.

While Canadians are holding the line, credit growth is still outpacing income gains.

In the first quarter of the year, for example, growth in mortgage debt from a year earlier was at its slowest pace since late 2001.

Canadian Tire to spin off real estate
Canadian Tire Corp. is taking a page from Loblaw Cos. Ltd.’s books, unveiled plans to spin off most of its property holdings into a real estate investment trust.

The REIT would own the Canadian chain’s portfolio of some 250 properties, roughly 18 million square feet worth $3.5-billion, the company announced today.

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