To hear some influential international investors tell it, Canada's housing market is headed for a deep freeze that could make the current winter from hell seem positively mild by comparison.
Increasingly bearish analysts have been warning for several years that an overheated real estate market is overdue for a cooling of some sort, ranging from a modest correction to an outright crash.
The latest Canadian home wrecker to weigh in is Pimco, the world's largest bond player. Ed Devlin, who oversees Pimco's investments in the Great White North, sees the slide beginning this year, in the face of increased bank funding costs, tighter credit and slightly higher mortgage rates.
The reasoning seems sound, although they're not offering any new evidence. But going by Pimco's recent track record, it's not something I would take to the bank.
"The interesting point is that we see a correction starting in the second half of this year, but we don't see it being disorderly," Mr. Devlin tells my colleague Tara Perkins. "Just like any market, when it gets to the end of a bull market … people are going to be less confident buying at these prices and more extended [valuations] and higher mortgage rates. And then we should start to see both volumes go lower, as well as prices."
His prediction of a gradual decline of 10 to 20 per cent in real terms over the next three to five years – and flat to 10 per cent lower in nominal terms (which is actually quite benign) – fits in the modestly bearish camp occupied by many Canada watchers these days. Just last week, Dr. Doom himself, Nouriel Roubini, told a Toronto audience that housing has "signs of frothiness, if not an outright bubble." But he stopped short of forecasting a Canadian crash, settling for a "meaningful correction."
That's the same neighbourhood occupied by the likes of Goldman Sachs, the IMF and a slew of other crystal-ball gazers. Of course, one person's "meaningful correction" can be another's crash. David Madani of Capital Economics has been warning since 2011 that Canada is headed for a prolonged and painful housing slump that will see prices drop 25 per cent over the next few years.
Unlike some other prognosticators, Pimco acts on its assessments. The firm's flagship $237-billion (U.S.) Total Return Fund, managed by company founder Bill Gross, slashed its Canadian debt exposure in the third quarter last year to 2 per cent of its vast portfolio from nearly 4 per cent a year earlier.
At times like this, I hesitate to point to Pimco's less-than-stellar forecasting record of recent years, which has contributed to its waning hold on its customer base. But the plain fact is that Pimco has missed enough waves to consider getting off the surfboard at times.
One costly miscalculation last year involved the timing and market effect of the Fed's tapering strategy, which led to a bad bet on the direction of U.S. Treasuries. Brazilian local-currency bonds, once a stellar performer for the Total Return Fund, turned sour last year, costing the fund a bundle.
Pimco has caused plenty of disappointment for German parent Allianz. Operating profit at the insurer's asset-management arm, which is 80 per cent Pimco, fell nearly 25 per cent in the fourth quarter, as a growing number of Pimco investors cashed in their chips. Redemptions for Pimco's Total Return Fund in February alone amounted to a net $1.6-billion (U.S.) – and that was the lowest in 10 months.