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March 07, 2012

BMO Cranks Up the Heat Again

BMOBMO is dead-set on winning mind share among consumers.

It’s coming back to the market with two new deep-discount rate promos:

  • A 5-year fixed at 2.99%
    (which starts Thursday, March 8, 2012)
  • A 10-year fixed at 3.99%
    (which starts Sunday, March 11, 2012)

Both of these specials are low-frills, meaning:

  • A Lower Maximum Amortization: 
    25 years versus 30-40 years elsewhere
  • Less Lump-sum Pre-payment Ability: 
    10% maximum per year (i.e., 1/2 of the 20% that BMO normally allows)
  • A Smaller Payment Increase Option: 
    Up to 10%, once per year (again, 1/2 of the 20% that BMO normally allows)
  • A Locked Term: 
    The Low-rate Mortgage is fully closed unless you sell the property, refinance (with BMO only), or early renew into another BMO mortgage. In other words, unless you sell, you’re not leaving BMO for 5 years, like it or not.

Both the 5-year and 10-year promos run for 3 weeks, until March 28, 2012.

We’ve heard talk that TD and RBC will not match BMO’s pricing on the 5-year term. We’ll see. The last time BMO ran this special, its competitors quickly responded with 4-year rates of 2.99%. Despite being one year shorter, those competing offers came with all the normal bells and whistles.

Unfortunately for competitors, a 2.99% five-year rate makes more headlines than a four-year promo at the same price, and BMO knows it. This deal has garnered almost a dozen major media stories already, and the press release only came out four hours ago.

Cut-Mortgage-RatesAs for BMO’s 10-year deal, it is 146 basis points below the nearest Big 6 bank competitors' advertised rates. It is BMO’s lowest 10-year rate ever, and it matches ING’s current 3.99% offer. (ING was the first bank in Canada to advertise 10-year rates below 4.00%.)

With these rates, BMO is starting to make other big banks look increasingly silly. CIBC, National Bank, RBC, and TD are currently promoting 5-year “special offer” rates of 4.04%. That’s 105 basis points above BMO (albeit with more flexibility). Those rates border on ridiculous, and they insult the intelligence of increasingly savvy consumers who know that well-qualified borrowers rarely pay anything close to those rates.

Yes, we say that knowing that BMO’s Low-rate mortgage is highly restrictive and not suitable for most.

It is, however, suitable for some. The target market includes many:

  • First-time buyers
  • Rental property owners
  • Owners of 2nd homes 

The customer should have no foreseeable need to break, increase or aggressively prepay his/her mortgage for five years.

In posting more transparent rates than its peers, BMO is taking a page from brokers and smaller rivals. In doing so, it’s building credibility with consumers at its competitors’ expense.

Frank Techar, BMO’s Canadian banking head, tells Bloomberg: “The reaction to our January offer was fantastic.” With a mortgage market that BMO CEO William Downe admits is “slowing,” 2.99% is a big fat worm on a hook. It is bait that gets BMO’s phones ringing.

It also gives BMO’s sales force a chance to upsell people into higher margin mortgages without all the restrictions of BMO’s Low-rate product. (There’s a lot of that going on, according to the BMO mortgage specialists we’ve talked to.)

With this rate sale, BMO is certain to take flak for fuelling consumer borrowing at a time when high debt levels are worrying policymakers.

Frank-TecharTo that end, Techar maintains that BMO is not fuelling the fire. He tells the Financial Post that these rates “are consistent with the debate around the need to reduce consumer debt levels.”

In an interview with Reuters, he said: “People are not going to stretch to get the largest mortgage they can with a 25-year amortization product. Because the monthly payments are higher, they…will go to a 30-year amortization product." (He’s right.)

Downe recently said this to analysts about BMO’s Low-rate Mortgage:

We think that's a product that is good for Canadians; it's good for Canada; it's good for our customers, and we intend to continue to promote it in this environment.

It's a product that we believe addresses all of the risks that are currently being debated, whether or not the consumer debt levels that are too high in Canada and a possible fallout from economic slowdown and rising interest rates.

It helps our customers pay less interest.

It mitigates their interest rate risk for five years.

It helps them retire debt free by paying off their balance faster, and it works against market price appreciation. In fact, it helps with…house price appreciation, because the shorter amortization reduces the maximum purchase price people can afford.

Being a 5-year fixed, this product does mitigate some risk. A 200 basis point rate increase by 2017 would only lift payments $133/month on the average Canadian mortgage of $151,000.

Department-of-FinanceAs for rumours that policymakers are ticked off by BMO’s pricing, the last time anyone looked, it’s still a free market. BMO can price as it sees fit within regulations. As long as underwriting standards remain high, God bless it for bringing down rates industry-wide.

Even if rates like 2.99% do spur more interest in mortgages, it doesn’t mean lenders will approve high-risk borrowers. BMO’s average loan-to-value (LTV) is just 60%. More notably, BMO’s residential mortgage portfolio has a long-run loss rate of less than 2 basis points (i.e., exceptionally low).

************

Barring a run-up in bond yields, we could now start seeing competitors (like mortgage brokers) respond with full-frills 5-year offers that are just a pittance above BMO’s rate. Some might even match or beat it.

We’d strongly encourage most folks to consider paying a bit more to avoid the low-rate mortgage restrictions—especially if the premium is small (0.05%-0.10%) and especially if you can benefit from the service and extras that come with a standard mortgage.


Side Note: Here are a few more details about BMO’s Low-rate Mortgage:

  • Rate Hold: Up to 90 days
  • Pre-Approvals?: Yes
  • BMO Mortgage Cash Account: Not available with the Low-Rate mortgage
  • BMO Skip-a-Payment: Not available with the Low-Rate mortgage
  • BMO ReadiLine: Not available with the Low-Rate mortgage
  • Rentals Allowed? Yes
  • 2nd Homes Allowed? Yes

Rob McLister, CMT


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