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business briefing

These are stories Report on Business is following Thursday, June 13, 2013.

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If speculators represent too much of condo boom, look out
Like just about everyone else these days, the Bank of Canada is again ringing alarm bells about Toronto's condominium market.

In its review of the financial system today, the central bank said that while recent signs from Canada's housing market are encouraging, bits and pieces still appear overvalued, real estate prices remain high relative to income, and "affordability could become a concern" when interest rates begin to rise again.

"In addition, construction activity remains strong in some segments of the market (despite the slowdown in overall housing demand over the past year), and the total number of housing units under construction remains significantly above its historical average relative to the population," the Bank of Canada said.

"This development is almost entirely attributable to multiple-unit dwellings (which include condominium units).

Earlier this week, as The Globe and Mail's Tara Perkins reports, statistics showed a bump in housing starts in May to an annual pace of 200,178, largely because of condos. Many of those were pre-sold.

Toronto has been the focus of concerns over a bubble, so much so that the city's condo market was cited by Finance Minister Jim Flaherty a year ago when he tightened mortgage rules for the fourth time.

In Toronto, specifically, the number of unsold high-rise units that are either under construction or in the pre-construction phase are still "near the high levels" seen since early last year, according to the Bank of Canada today.

"If the investor component of demand has boosted construction in the condominium market beyond demographic requirements, this market may be more susceptible to shifts in buyer sentiment," the central bank said, noting "investors, especially those with short investment horizons, may be more willing to sell housing assets to limit any potential losses in the event of a deterioration in housing market sentiment than would households that buy a house as a principal residence."

Not only that, but the risk of an "abrupt correction in prices" would rise if the coming supply of condos doesn't match demand over the course of the next 12 to 30 months.

And the damage wouldn't stop there, The Globe and Mail's Sean Silcoff writes.

"Any correction in condominium prices could spread to other segments of the housing market as buyers and sellers adjust their expectations," the Bank of Canada said.

"Such a correction would reduce household net worth, confidence and consumption spending, with negative spillovers to income and employment," it added.

"These adverse effects would weaken the credit quality of banks' loan portfolios and could lead to tighter lending conditions for households and businesses. This chain of events could then feed back into the housing market, causing the drop in house prices to overshoot."

Analysts project asset sales
Sobeys Inc. now finds itself at the top of the food chain in Alberta, where analysts say it could be forced to sell some assets after its blockbuster deal for Safeway Inc.'s Canadian operations.

As The Globe and Mail's Marina Strauss and Steve Ladurantaye report, Sobeys and Safeway unveiled the $5.8-billion deal late yesterday, one that will make Sobeys a king in western Canada and tops in Alberta.

The sale also adds pressure to Loblaw Cos. Ltd. and comes amid heightened competition in the industry given the heft of Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Target Corp.

The deal gives Sobeys more than 200 western grocery stores, many gas stations and a dozen manufacturing plants.

"Safeway did not hold an auction for its Canadian assets," said Desjardins analyst Keith Howlett, calling the deal a "major move in the grocery wars chess game."

"It had a good appreciation of the potential bidders, what they might be willing to pay and how steep the Competition Bureau hurdles for each might be."

For Empire Co. Ltd., which owns Sobeys, analysts see it as a positive deal, particularly for earnings in 2015 and 2016.

The Safeway assets fit well with Sobeys, said Mr. Howlett, noting the exceptional level of competition in the industry.

"Given Costco's plans to expand to 110 stores in Canada (from 85 stores today), Wal-Mart's ongoing roll-out of supercenters, Target's inclusion of pantry food sections in almost every store and the possibility of Amazon bringing online groceries to Canada, we do not anticipate the Competition Bureau will have substantial objections to the Empire-Safeway transaction," Mr. Howlett said.

But RBC Dominion Securities thinks otherwise, raising the possibility of Sobeys being forced to sell some of the assets it's getting from Safeway.

"We expect meaningful divestitures to be required in Alberta," said analyst Andrew Calder, noting Sobeys would have three times the number of stores of its closest rival, Loblaw.

In Manitoba, it would have double the outlets of the number-two player.

Mr. Calder he expects a "close review" by the antitrust regulators, which could open the door to sales to other grocers.

"The Competition Bureau will take a market-by-market approach to its review, which could make for a long review given the scale and number of markets involved," he said.

"We would expect any divestitures arising from the Competition Bureau's assessment to be larger in those provinces," Mr. Calder added, referring to Alberta and Manitoba.

"Divestitures would present opportunities for the other operators like Loblaw and Metro. We presume Sobeys considered this impact in valuation and its synergy estimates."

Harper pitches trade deal
Canada's prime minister pitched the British parliament on the merits of a Canada-EU trade deal today, saying such an agreement would be a "monumental" step, The Globe and Mail's Paul Waldie reports from London.

"For Canada, and for Great Britain as a member of the EU, this will be a historic step – a monumental one," Stephen Harper said in his prepared remarks.

"A joint Canada-EU study has shown that a commercial agreement of this type would increase two-way trade by 20 per cent."

The two sides are now negotiating.

Mr. Harper also praised his British counterpart's austerity efforts in the post-crisis era.

"I acknowledge and applaud your own leadership in taking tough decisions to rein in spending," he said.

Wilson sold shares under plan
The chairman of Lululemon Athletica Inc. sold almost $50-million (U.S.) of shares a few days before the two-day rout that bloodied the yoga wear retailer's stock, The Wall Street Journal reports today.

Chip Wilson's sales were prearranged under a U.S. trading scheme, 10b5-1. In his case, the plan is to sell more than 5.5 million Lululemon shares over the course of a year and a half, the report said.

A spokesperson for the Vancouver-based company was not immediately available for comment, but the news organization quoted the Lululemon founder's assistant as saying Mr. Wilson had "no influence on trades" done by Merrill Lynch, which oversees the plan.

As the Journal notes, Merrill Lynch, not Mr. Wilson, control the timing of such sales. And, of course, he still owns more than 25 per cent of Lululemon.

"It's reasonable to assume that anyone who owns this much of a company want to diversify his holdings," University of Colorado Boulder professor Alan Jagolinzer told the newspaper.

According to the Journal, Mr. Wilson's selling has been ongoing since May, though the latest, of some 607,545 at $81.50 each, appeared to be the heftiest.

Citing data from InsiderScore, the Journal said some 2 million of his shares were sold between May 10 and June 7, at an average $81.57 each. Such selling has been done in past years, as well, so such sales are not new.

The latest sale was on Friday, the report said, the same day the board of directors was told that Christine Day planned to quit as chief executive officer.

Her plan to leave, as soon as her successor is named, was announced by the company after markets closed Monday, along with Lululemon's strong first-quarter earnings report.

Then on Tuesday, the stock plunged some 17 per cent in reaction, followed by a decline of more than 5 per cent yesterday. Shares rose marginally today.

Analysts are advising investors to wait for the fallout to abate, and for Lululemon to fill Ms. Day's post and get a new team in place. Some have slashed their price targets on the stock, sand some say they expect the shares to rebound.

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