Canada housing agency sees looming hit from oil shock

TORONTO (Reuters) - Canada’s federal housing agency is expecting to see more homeowners fall behind in their mortgage payments in the western part of the country as a prolonged slump in oil prices hit household budgets and the once-soaring housing market.

The Toronto Skyline with a condominium building under construction (L) is shown in downtown Toronto, May 14, 2009. REUTERS/ Mike Cassese

The Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp, which insures the bulk of Canadian home loans, said woes in the energy sector have not yet hit homeowners’ ability to make their house payments, but signs of some distress will show up soon.

“We have not seen a significant change in our arrears rate, but ... it’s a little bit too soon for that to work its way through the system,” CMHC vice-president Steven Mennill told reporters on a conference call.

“We are anticipating a slightly higher arrears rate in those provinces, should the economic weakness persist.”

Canada’s housing market has boomed since 2009 but signs of weakness have shown up in regions outside the two largest markets, Toronto and Vancouver.

Analysts have long warned the market could be a bubble, but are divided over whether prudent lending standards and low interest rates will allow a soft landing, or a U.S. style crash.

While national prices have risen 5.6 percent in the last 12 months, the energy capital of Calgary has seen prices fall about 1 percent since peaking in Oct 2014, according to the Teranet-National Bank price index.

The arrears rate in the province of Alberta was 0.28 percent in the third quarter of 2015, up slightly from the start of the year but still below the national arrears rate of 0.35 percent, the CHMC report showed.

Mennil said the government insurer has also seen a modest reduction in new insurance volumes in the western Prairie provinces, which do not include British Columbia. He said that suggests homebuying is slowing, but he believes new loans are less risky than in previous quarters.

“If anything we’ve seen an improvement in overall borrower quality and the risk profile of those loans - so volumes are slightly down but the actual quality of the business is slightly higher,” he told reporters.

Reporting by Andrea Hopkins; editing by Grant McCool