Commentary,  Finance,  Macroeconomics

House of Cards: Interest Rates, Household Debt, and the Housing Crisis

Last week the Bank of Canada increased its overnight interest rate, for the 9th time in little over a year, to 4.75%. In making its announcement, the Bank cited a slight increase in year-over-year headline CPI inflation last month. This, the Bank suggested, was one reason why it abandoned a temporary ‘hold’ on further interest rate increases announced in January.

The Bank’s rationale is ironic, because the Bank’s rapid run-up in interest rates was the main cause of that small uptick in inflation (which rose from 4.3% in March to 4.4% in April, on a year-over-year basis). Indeed, the official Statistics Canada announcement of the April inflation data stated this explicitly: “Higher rent prices and mortgage interest costs contributed the most to the all-items CPI increase.”

Both of those factors – rising debt service charges and rising rents – are direct consequences of higher interest rates. Mortgage debt (which constitutes 3% of the bundle of goods and services tracked by StatsCan in its Consumer Price Index) is skyrocketing: up 29% in the last year, a direct consequence of higher interest rates. Rents make up a bigger share of the CPI basket (6.57%); they are also growing faster than other commodities (rising 6.1% in the last year, and by much more than that in many cities).

How Higher Interest Rates Lift Inflation

The connection between Bank of Canada policies and mortgage debt costs is obvious. But higher rents are also a side-effect of higher interest rates. First, since fewer people can afford to buy a home, they turn to the rental market, boosting demand. Second, landlords increase rents further to cover their own (growing) debt charges – and the housing shortage allows them to lift rents with impunity. 

The housing shortage is exacerbated by Canada’s rapidly growing population (boosted by record-high immigration flows). On the supply side of the market, however, new housing construction (for both owned and rental properties) is being crushed by high interest rates and fears of coming economic downturn. 

Indeed, residential investment has declined every quarter since the Bank of Canada started increasing interest rates last spring. It’s fallen almost 20% over the last year, and will certainly continue shrinking until the Bank’s monetary tightening is reversed.

Housing investment hurt by interest rates

Canadians need more housing, not less. The Bank of Canada argues strenuously that inflation has been caused by “excess demand”: that is, too much spending power. High interest rates do little to reduce the demand for housing. But they are hurting supply, badly.

So by lifting interest rates again to combat an uptick in inflation that was the result of its own policies, the Bank is continuing a self-defeating and ineffective strategy. In reality, post-pandemic inflation resulted not from Canadians having too much spending power, but rather from supply shocks and pandemic-related disruptions. High interest costs are making those supply shocks worse, not better –with Canada’s stressed housing market a prime case. All this sets the stage for more inflation down the road, or even worse: financial distress for many households, potential instability in the banking system, and a potential recession.

The vulnerability of Canadian households to rising interest costs has attracted growing concern from national and international bodies. Canada’s CMHC warned recently that since Canadians’ household debt was the highest in the G7 economies, families here are especially vulnerable to interest-induced financial distress. And a recent IMF report concluded Canada’s housing market was more at risk of mortgage defaults (due to inflated property prices and excessive household debt) than any other industrial country.

Statistics Canada data confirm that household interest costs are growing very rapidly in the wake of repeated interest rate increases. By end-2022, household interest costs were up by 45%, or over $40 billion (at annual rates), compared to year-earlier levels. That’s $40 billion per year that households can’t spend on food, clothing, shelter, and other essentials – and that is instead paid directly to the banks. And this interest burden will get much worse still, as mortgage rates are adjusted and other contracts are rewritten.

Soaring household interest payments

Ironically, despite the high and precarious nature of household debt in Canada, political discourse continues to focus disproportionately on public debt and deficits – rather than on the financial stress faced by households. In fact, household debt is significantly larger as a share of GDP than government debt; the debt of non-financial corporations is even larger. Moreover, it is riskier and more expensive for private borrowers (households and corporations) to maintain and service their debt: they pay higher interest rates than governments, and face default risks that do not apply to governments. In that light, political leaders (like Pierre Poilievre) should stop fretting about government deficits, and instead focus on what’s required to lift Canadians’ wages, and reduce housing costs, so that households don’t have to run up such excessive debts just to put a roof over their heads.

Whose Debt Matters?

Centre for Future Work Director Jim Stanford addressed the risks facing the housing market as a result of rising interest rates and very high household debt in two recent television appearances. On June 9 he spoke with David Cochrane on CBC’s flagship public affairs program, Power and Politics:

Centre for Future Work Director Jim Stanford addressed the risks facing the housing market as a result of rising interest rates and very high household debt on June 9 with David Cochrane on CBC’s flagship public affairs program, Power and Politics:

The same day, Jim participated in a 25-minute panel discussion on TVO’s The Agenda, with host Nam Kiwanuka and fellow economist Mike Moffatt. 

Why Do Canadians Have a Household Debt Problem? | The Agenda

Jim Stanford is Economist and Director of the Centre for Future Work. He divides his time between Sydney, Australia and Vancouver, Canada. Jim is one of Canada’s best-known economic commentators. He served for over 20 years as Economist and Director of Policy with Unifor, Canada’s largest private-sector trade union.