Statistics Canada is focusing its attention on the factors driving demand in the country's housing market, its chief statistician says – including the key data gap Ottawa has highlighted in information about foreign ownership.
In an interview with The Globe and Mail, Anil Arora said foreign ownership in real estate "is a big issue" for policy makers, and the agency plans to begin collecting data from land registries, provinces and other sources, with a feasibility study on how to gather that data scheduled to be published next year. Mr. Arora said the agency is looking broadly at how to improve the quality of its housing data, in areas such as drivers of home prices and how trends compare in different cities.
"It's an opportunity for us to step back and look at the whole housing statistical framework and say, what is causing these kinds of shifts, and changes and fluctuations in prices, and how can we do that in a uniform way," he said in his first wide-ranging media interview as chief statistician, conducted at the agency's Ottawa headquarters. Mr. Arora took over the reins at Statscan on Sept. 19.
The agency's look at housing comes at a time of concern about overextended households, speculation by foreign investors and rapidly rising house prices, especially in the Greater Vancouver and Toronto markets. Ottawa recently introduced reforms aimed at mitigating risks in the market, including stricter stress testing for borrowers and new rules on the primary residence capital-gains exemption.
The federal government had already identified foreign ownership in the housing market as a key data gap and allocated $500,000 in the past budget for Statscan to explore ways to fill it. The agency is examining how to track housing trends on "a more comprehensive basis, that we can maintain over time," which means not just looking at new home prices, which it now publishes, but also "existing inventories, condos, multifamily [units]. … Foreign ownership is an important aspect but there are other aspects that we need to take into account."
In a followup e-mail to The Globe, the agency said it plans to improve its housing data by developing "within the next five years" a residential real-estate price index that tracks the evolution of housing prices. It will include data on new homes, condos and existing homes "and will provide a much better indicator of overall housing price inflation."
Housing is not the only area where Statscan has identified data gaps. Other key holes in economic information that Mr. Arora touched on include the effect of globalization on Canada – better capturing the activity of Canadian companies' overseas operations and foreign companies' operations in Canada. This means more study of global supply chains, and examining how much value is added from "our companies outside of this country and how does that relate back to Canada in terms of jobs and growth and innovation."
The latter – innovation – is another area he highlighted: factors that help a company get products and services to market, and why some firms may be better at it than others. Canada has long lagged in global innovation rankings.
On the social side, children's health is a priority. "While we have some good information on the adult population, that doesn't cover the population that's less than 12. So there's a whole gap," he said. The agency is conducting a nationwide pilot project on children and youth, with indicators on nutrition, mental health and chronic conditions.
Other gaps he cited concern aboriginal youth, seniors and refugees, areas he's hoping to fill with data from the new census and from administrative sources.
Agency independence is another area of focus. Mr. Arora is working with the federal government, which has pledged to "reinforce" the agency's autonomy. This will likely mean changes to the Statistics Act to codify in law its independence – which would bring Canada in line with other developed countries.
Declining household-survey response rates are a key challenge, something he aims to address by exploring new ways of reaching people – be it through social media, texting or cellphones. "If we're going to tap into the next generation, we have to get on with user-friendly systems that make sense for them to respond to and make it easier, because they're the future consumers of that information, as well."
His main goal is to ensure "reliable, trustworthy, timely and credible statistics" are maintained and strengthened, he said, while confidentiality is protected.
Born in India, Mr. Arora came to Canada at the age of 11 and grew up in Edmonton. He started at Statscan's regional office in Edmonton in 1988 and moved to Ottawa in 1997. He worked at Statscan for 21 years, working on the 2006 census redesign and as assistant chief statistician, before leaving the agency nearly seven years ago to work at Natural Resources and Health Canada.
He rejoined Statscan last month, after its previous chief statistician Wayne Smith resigned over concerns a move to outsource the agency's IT services hobbled it and put data quality at risk.
Mr. Arora indicated he's taking a different approach over the matter, saying he's been in frequent contact with Shared Services Canada, the federal department that currently handles Statscan's IT issues, and that it has been responsive. "My commitment is to make that work.
"I remain confident that through careful management, we'll be able to ensure there is continuity of our programs, that all our users can still expect to see the data that they treasure."