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July 14 (Reuters) - (The following statement was released by the rating agency)
Canadian home prices remain overvalued relative to historical macroeconomic fundamental drivers, Fitch Ratings says. Despite government efforts to moderate growth, home prices rose 7.1% in May (on a year-over-year basis) according to the Canadian Real Estate Association. In addition, both property sales and building permits for residential construction have picked up in recent months. Home prices also continue to be supported by historically low interest rates and a lack of supply in the major metropolitan areas; these factors have propped up affordability and drive demand. According to Fitch’s sustainable home price model, which measures home prices relative to long-term fundamentals, Canadian home prices remain approximately 20% overvalued in real terms.
We believe high household debt relative to disposable income has made the market more susceptible to market stresses like unemployment or interest rate increases. The ratio reached a high of 164.1% in third-quarter 2013 before declining slightly in the following two quarters. Fitch projects unemployment will likely remain in its current 7% range. But low interest rates are unlikely to fall further. Rising interest rates could pressure the market more than others given high borrower leverage and the short-term structure of Canadian mortgages.
Fitch believes the Canadian government has taken several proactive steps in recent years to mitigate some of the risks to the housing market. The underwriting guidelines for loans insured by the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) have been tightened. CMHC has also pulled back on the amount of low-ratio portfolio insurance offered to lenders and limited securitization of insured mortgages to CMHC-administered programs. Furthermore, The Office of the Superintendent of Financial Institutions has issued a guideline for prudent bank underwriting that must be adhered to for bank originations as well as those purchased from nonbank lenders. However, the long-term impacts remain unclear, and policy makers may be required to take additional steps over the short term to engineer a soft landing.