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Report On Business Scotiabank CEO plays down concerns raised over Canadian debt levels

Brian Porter, president and CEO of Scotiabank, addresses the company's annual meeting in Calgary, April 12, 2016.


Scotiabank's chief executive says he disagrees with recent red flags raised over Canada's high debt levels by an international body, and that he is "comfortable" with the lender's risk profile.

Brian Porter told a University of Toronto conference that he had a "different perspective" from the International Monetary Fund's recent warning and said they should look at the "other side of the balance sheet" which has "kept pace or outgrown the size of the debt."

"I am very comfortable with our risk profile," he said Wednesday.

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His comments come after the IMF in October said that Canada's high debt levels, and higher-than-average pressure on Canadian households' ability to pay down that debt in the private non-financial sector, leaves its economy more sensitive to tighter financial conditions and weaker economic activity.

And last month, an international financial group owned by the world's central banks said Canada's credit-to-gross-domestic-product and debt-service ratios show early warning signs of potential risk to the domestic banking system in the coming years.

Porter, speaking at the Rotman School of Management's conference examining lessons learned from the global financial crisis, said that a proper analysis should look at an entity in its entirety, rather than just one metric.

He also said that Canada's banks now are holding more capital as a safety buffer than they were 10 years ago.

"Today, we are in a better position," Porter said.

However, he told the crowd that one major threat and priority for the banks is cybersecurity.

Scotiabank's spend on technology, including cybersecurity initiatives, rose 13 per cent last year and now sits at more than $3-billion, Porter noted.

He also said the chief technology officers at all the major Canadian banks are working in conjunction with the Bank of Canada and the federal banking regulator on cybersecurity.

Porter also heeded caution on the movement towards "open banking", where third-parties such as financial technology startups get access to bank data to develop apps.

Ottawa said in its budget last month that it is going to study the merits of open banking, similar to what the Ministry of Finance said in a consultation paper last August.

And on Tuesday, Royal Bank of Canada said it was opening up select bits of its data to eligible external software developers in a bid to foster innovation and enable them to build and test banking-related applications.

Porter said privacy and security concerns should be addressed first.

"Let's get privacy nailed down, let's make sure we get better at security before we start on open banking," he said.

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