Skip to main content

A ‘for sale’ sign is seen in Vaughan, Ont.MARK BLINCH/Reuters

The International Monetary Fund is urging Canada to take further action in order to address rising household debt levels and the risks of a sharp correction in the housing market.

In a staff statement that followed an annual visit to Canada, the IMF warns of "significant" risks to future growth due to the potential for a housing market decline that impairs bank balance sheets and spreads to the broader economy.

"Credit ratings of Canada's six largest banks were lowered recently, reflecting concern that high household debt and the rapid appreciation of house prices could weaken asset quality in the future," the IMF stated.

As a result, Cheng Hoon Lim, an assistant director of the IMF, told a news conference in Ottawa that several specific actions are needed. She called for policies that will further tighten restrictions on speculative investments in the housing sector, greater co-ordination between federal and provincial regulators and better data on real estate transactions, which she noted has been promised by Ottawa.

Ms. Lim's staff statement also took issue with the foreign buyers tax approach introduced in British Columbia and Ontario that "discriminates against non-resident buyers." The IMF states that non-resident activity is not the sole driver of housing prices and the provinces should replace the foreign-buyers taxes with more effective tax changes aimed at discouraging speculative activity.

Federal Conservative and Liberal governments have announced several rounds of policy changes since 2008 that are aimed at discouraging home buyers from taking on more debt than they can handle. The most recent round of federal changes were announced in October. British Columbia and Ontario have also announced tightening measures that fall under provincial jurisdiction.

The IMF noted that high debt levels and housing affordability challenges are primarily a concern in Toronto and Vancouver, where many first-time buyers have been priced out of the market. Ms. Lim said the IMF has been studying the effectiveness of all of these policy measures.

"Overall, they have been effective in dampening mortgage credit growth, but less so with respect to house prices. There is an effect, but not as strong," she said. "What we have found, it's still a bit too early to tell because these measures were introduced in late 2016, but the measure to make it harder to qualify for mortgages by having a more stringent stress test on interest rates I think is beginning to work."

The IMF statement touched on a wide-range of issues, including fiscal and monetary policy, infrastructure spending and projections for economic growth.

The IMF projects the Canadian economy will grow by 2.5 per cent in 2017 and 1.9 per cent in 2018. However the medium-term outlook is described as "less upbeat," as low labour productivity and population aging is expected to limit potential growth to about 1.8 per cent. That's lower than the historical average of 2.6 per cent growth between 2000 and 2008.

On monetary policy, the IMF said the Bank of Canada's cautious approach is "justifiable" given the considerable uncertainty in the economic outlook. On the fiscal side, the IMF also approved of Ottawa's deficit spending and welcomed the pledge to set federal debt-to-GDP on a declining path.

On the issue of the Infrastructure Bank, which is currently a matter of heated debate in the House of Commons as the government moves to pass enacting legislation, the IMF praised the overall concept as an "effective" instrument.

"The success of the CIB will depend on ensuring that the project selection process is transparent and balances public and private interests. Given the potential of the CIB to advance long-term growth, the government and the CIB must address public resistance to user fees as well as skepticism over involving private investors in public infrastructure projects, with education and a clear statement of the CIB's benefit," the IMF states.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe