As CNN's chief business correspondent, Ali Velshi has spent the last decade delving into major U.S. and international business stories.
Born in Kenya, Mr. Velshi was raised in Toronto and launched his career at a series of Canadian networks before moving to the U.S. to take up a position with CNN.
I chatted with the affable and animated Mr. Velshi last month when he was in Toronto promoting the book he co-authored with Christine Romans, How to Speak Money. You can read a book excerpt here and watch videos with his advice to 20-somethings and his views on Canada's housing market.
Here is an edited transcript of a conversation we had that touched on everything from debt loads and housing bubbles to retirement planning and the value of education.
Q. What do you think is the biggest difference, if there is one, between Canadians and Americans when it comes to personal finance? A. It is structural. I love Canada's RRSP season because you have to be a moron to ignore that everyone is talking about investing. There is no such investing season in the U.S. and unlike with RRSPs, here it is all about what your company's offering. There is never a structured discussion about your particular financial situation vis-à-vis retirement investing.
Q. What is the result of that? A. The net result is that Canadians are more in tune with retirement investing and global trends in finance. The flip side of that is that Canadians are not faced with this barrage on home buying that Americans are. Every American knows you get a deduction for mortgage interest so there is a greater emphasis in the U.S. on owning a house and having a mortgage, although a lot of that has been beaten out of Americans in the last four years. In Canada, I do not hear that same obsession. People who are not in a position to buy a house don't tend to talk so much about it.
Q. Do you think there could be a housing bubble in Canada? A. I have spoken to many Canadians and they tell they don't believe there is. But never does anybody in a bubble realize they are in a bubble. It seems to me that there is a whole lot of construction going on in Toronto and Vancouver and I understand there is a great influx of people to these cities, but I worry about excess supply.
Q. Many Canadians are taking on more mortgages debt and lines of credit, with some of that being spent on renovations. How much house-related debt should people be taking on? A. While there is a concern that Canadians are overly indebted, I don't really share that view. I think a house is a good investment, if you can manage the payments. And that is personal. That boils down to whether your house payments can be met and also allow you to do everything else you need to do, along with a comfortable cushion. If not, don't buy the house.
Q. Why do people appear to be increasingly comfortable taking on large amounts of debt? A. We have this sense of invincibility. The idea of a mortgage is you pay this affordable amount, otherwise you would have to wait until you are 80 to buy a house. And somehow that has crept into other forms of spending. We did not have a good discussion in society as to why it become acceptable to accumulate debt for everything else. And the sad part is that it has replaced savings. So its not just that you are spending, it is that you are spending instead of saving. That is the problem – that we do not understand the consequence of too much debt.
Q. In Canada, students generally end up with smaller debt loads than in the U.S. Still, is this worthwhile debt? A. One year of higher education in the U.S. ranges from $16,000 to $40,00 – much higher than in Canada – and in our book, we still argue that it is worth it. The statistics bear that out. If there is something worth going into debt over it is a proper education. Not every education is worth it, but the right one is worth it.
Q. What is the biggest challenge facing Canadians as they look ahead to retirement? A. The biggest challenge is that most people have not done a calculation of how much money they will need in retirement, and we are living longer. Virtually nobody has saved enough for retirement. And you can't make the right decisions on how much to save if you don't know what retirement will look like. Does it mean a villa in Tuscany or does it mean gardening in your backyard? And how much will this cost? And as a result, we do not save for retirement as a goal, we save based on what we can afford to set aside and what taxes will allow us to set aside. We are backwards in how we look at retirement – in both countries.