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Lenders increasingly liberal on mortgages, credit lines, Canada regulator warns

These are stories Report on Business is following Monday, Jan. 30, 2012. Get the top business stories through the day on BlackBerry or iPhone by bookmarking our mobile-friendly webpage.

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OSFI sounds alarm Canada's banking regulator is concerned over what it sees as lenders growing "increasingly liberal" with mortgages and lines of credit tied to a borrower's home equity where no proof of income is required.

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Warnings from the Office of the Superintendent of Financial Institutions include mortgages and home equity loans to people who are self-employed and have recently immigrated to Canada, Bloomberg News reports today, citing more than 150 pages of documents it obtained under access to information laws.

Such cases "have some similarities to non-prime loans in the U.S. retail lending market," the documents say, according to the news agency.

There has not been much concern in Canada over such loans, which a CIBC World Markets economist puts at representing less than 5 per cent of the overall market.

There are many differences between the markets in the United States and Canada, which has recently tightened mortgage rules, as well.

A spokesman for OSFI told Bloomberg that it "identifies areas that may require an increased level of monitoring" as part of its normal process, while a spokeswoman for the Canadian Bankers Association said banks in Canada carefully manage their risk.

The debt burden among Canadians has grown to worrisome levels, prompting repeated warnings from policy makers of the vulnerability of consumers when interest rates inevitably rise. Amid that, Canada's housing market is slowing.

Sherry Cooper, for one, isn't overly worried where the country's mortgage insurer, Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp., is concerned. CMHC is solid and the quality of its portfolio strong, the chief economist at Bank of Montreal said in a report Friday.

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Indeed, the pace of delinquencies is low, she said, shy of 0.5 per cent, compared to 8 per cent in the United States.

"In addition, CMHC is working closely with the Bank of Canada and the Department of Finance to analyze Canadian house prices by city (CMA) looking for warning signs of a potential bubble," Ms. Cooper said in her report.

"They are carefully modelling house prices in each province and CMA based on such underlying factors as demographic changes, economic growth, interest rates and construction costs. At the moment, there is little evidence to suggest a problematic overvaluation in the Canadian housing market overall, although some centres 'warrant close monitoring,' according to their most recent quarterly report issued in September 2011."

Greece simmers as EU meets Europe's leaders are meeting in Brussels today, but the real drama is in Athens and Lisbon.

The 27 leaders of the EU hold their first summit of the year as Greece and its private creditors continue to negotiate toward a debt restructuring. Officials say a deal is close but, as we've seen many times with the euro zone, so are summer holidays.

The meeting comes amid a deteroriating outlook for the 17-member euro zone overall - just today Spain reported that its economy contracted in the fourth quarter, while bond yields in Portugal surged - and as Greece and Germany bicker about oversight of the Athens budget.

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Germany wants an outsider to oversee Greece's books as a condition of further bailout funds, while Greece's finance minister says that would come down to a choice of either "financial assistance" or "national dignity."

And in an interview with The Wall Street Journal, Germany's finance minister warns that Greece could default unless it can assure the euro zone it has the chops to overhaul its finances.

Troubles are also mounting in Portugal, The Globe and Mail's Eric Reguly reports, so much so that many observers believe another bailout is inevitable.

"The main focus in the next 24 hours will be the headlines emanating from the European heads of state summit," said currency strategist Elsa Lignos of RBC in London.

"The agenda includes the fiscal compact, changes to the [bailout mechanism]and measures to boost growth and jobs," she added.

Markets slip The euro zone's troubles have again cast a pall over global markets.

"With the latest European summit set to start later today and the market starting to tire a little of news that a Greek deal is very nearly almost done, it looks like investors are happy to stand aside for now to see if any progress is made in the coming days," said David Jones, chief market strategist at IG Index.

Tokyo's Nikkei slipped 0.5 per cent today, and Hong Kong's Hang Seng 1.7 per cent, while Europe's major markets sank by more than 1 per cent. The S&P 500 and Toronto's S&P/TSX composite followed along.

Last week's optimism over the Greek negotiations have given way to caution, said senior economist Jennifer Lee of BMO Nesbitt Burns.

"And worries over Portugal remain on the side burner (or front?), with 10-year government yields surging over 85 basis to a euro-era high of 15 per cent. Meantime, French officials are cutting back on their expectations on what the economy can achieve this year. Growth is reportedly being shaved for 2012, and more spending cuts are in the pipeline."

Siemens strikes deal for RuggedCom Canada's RuggedCom Inc. has found its white knight in the form of Siemens Canada Ltd., which has struck a deal to acquire the networking company for about $440-million.

The $33-a-share bid from Siemens eclipses a hostile attempt by Belden Inc. at $22.

"The Siemens offer is the culmination of a thorough and vigorous process run by the special committee to identify superior alternatives to the Belden offer," said RuggedCom chairman Peter Crombie. "Given the level of interest from qualified potential parties, the special committee facilitated a process to maximize the value on offer for RuggedCom."

Valeant drops ISTA bid Less than two weeks after boosting its hostile bid for ISTA Pharmaceuticals Inc. , Canada's Valeant Pharmaceuticals International Inc. says it's walking away.

Valeant had been offering about $360-million (U.S.), or $7.50 a share.

Valeant said in a statement today that it's frustrated by the lack of movement, so it's taking its pills and going home a day before the offer was to expire.

"As we stated last December, we were not interested in participating in a lengthy evaluation process and we are disappointed that the ISTA team was not willing to fully explore our proposal by Jan. 31," chief executive officer Michael Pearson said in a statement.

"We continue to be disciplined on our M&A strategy and we are actively working on other opportunities that we believe can create value for our shareholders. We wish the ISTA team well in their future endeavors."

The spy game The U.S. government is finding new roles for its spooks in an era of heightened trade vigilance

In his State of the Union address last week, President Barack Obama outlined plans for a Trade Enforcement Unit, basically a crack unit that will fight unfair trade practices.

U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk added some details later, telling Reuters that the team would include officials of the Commerce and customs operations, and the intelligence services.

"Even some of the intelligence agencies will be working collaboratively together," Mr. Kirk told the news agency in an interview published yesterday.

The overall effort, Mr. Kirk said, "will provide a much better tool basket and put more bodies in terms of being able to develop some of these cases and gather the intelligence that is necessary to take some of these complex matters before the World Trade Organization."

It may not be as exciting as the old Cold War days for some - counting softwood lumber can't be as romantic as sneaking across the Iron Curtain - but it does illustrate how countries are scrambling to boost their exports and protect their markets in a troubled global economy. And, America's case, much of it does appear aimed at China.

What to watch for this week Markets will be watching closely when the U.S. Labor Department and Statistics Canada give their snapshots of labour markets Friday.

Economists believe the U.S. report will show that the economy created about 150,000 jobs this month, and that the unemployment rate held steady at about 8.5 per cent. Also worth watching, as The Globe and Mail's Kevin Carmichael writes in today's Report on Business, is the participation rate given the number of Americans who have given up looking for work.

"Recent encouraging news on the U.S. labour market should have continued into the start of 2012, although further improvement may well prove harder to achieve," said Andrew Grantham of CIBC World Markets.

"With growth settling to a more moderate pace, hiring would do well to average much in excess of 150,000 [a month]this year. This would not be enough to prevent the unemployment rate from edging up later in the year should previously discouraged workers return to the labour force."

In Canada, Friday's report is expected to show job creation in the area of 20,000, give or take, but an unemployment rate stubbornly stuck at 7.5 per cent.

"Canadian employment rose nearly 200,000 in 2011, but growth slowed sharply in the second half of the year," said Benjamin Reitzes of BMO Nesbitt Burns.

"The underlying deceleration is expected to persist in 2012. However, over the past two years, the first half of the year accounted for the bulk of employment gains, with January kicking things off with a strong report. We look for a similar pattern (though milder than last year), and are calling for an 18,000 headline increase for January."

In the markets, quarterly earnings season continues with reports from several major energy companies, including Imperial Oil Ltd. , Suncor Energy Inc. , Canadian Oil Sands Ltd. , and MEG Energy Corp. .

"We expect MEG registered very strong flush production in the months following its annual September turnaround," said analysts at UBS Securities Canada.

"Our estimate of 29,750 barrels a day would eclipse the Q2'11 record of 27,800 barrels a day, establishing good momentum into 2012 ... For [Suncor] we expect an update on operations at Firebag 3, where we have seen ramp-up contribute to strong oil sands production volumes in December. For [Canadian Oil Sands] we note Q4 production from Syncrude was the lowest since Q2'09. For [Imperial Oil] we await an update on Kearl which remains the key investor focus."

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