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Banks Call for Higher Down Payments

Rising down payments FBThe CEOs of National Bank & Scotiabank, Louis Vachon and Brian Porter, made headlines this past week by suggesting that Ottawa raise the minimum down payment. Reportedly, they want people to put down at least 10% on all homes under $1 million.

Today, Canadians must lay out at least 5% on purchases up to $500,000, plus 10% on any amounts between $500,000.01 and $999,999.99. It’s a reasonable policy that lessens risk on higher-priced homes in torrid housing markets.

When hearing bank bigwigs opine on down payments, one has to wonder how long it’s been since they were first-time homebuyers. Today, the number one reason young Canadians don’t buy homes sooner is the current equity requirements. Over two-thirds of CMHC insured buyers, for example, can only scrounge up 5.00% to 9.99% down payments.

Were regulators to heed these bankers, it would force untold thousands of young Canadians to rent (or keep their parents company) significantly longer. That’s despite their qualifications as borrowers and despite any social/economic ramifications. And for what? To protect banks’ earnings? To curb Toronto / Vancouver housing while setting back buyers in the other two-thirds of the country where values are stable or falling?

How about these banks mitigate their own risk? They can do that by continuing to approve people who can clearly service their debt, irrespective of equity. It’s a crazy concept, but it might just work.

Take someone who earns a stable income, has demonstrated their ability and willingness to maintain pristine credit and is not over-extended with debt. That person has earned the right to own. The fact that they’ve saved only 5%, and not 10%, does not make them a high-risk borrower. Any systemic risk they do pose is mitigated with default insurance, which they pay for.

A flat 10% down payment is not the answer. It doesn’t achieve the correct goal. The goal of further regulation should be to keep higher-risk borrowers out of the market, not to keep all borrowers without an arbitrarily set down payment out of the market.

The Department of Finance should really be targeting borrowers who finance higher-value properties (non-starter homes) with smaller-than-average down payments, higher-than-average debt ratios and lower-than-average credit scores. One way to do that is by lowering the maximum allowable debt ratios on those borrowers—i.e., on borrowers exhibiting “layered risk.” If another economic shock does come along, these are the folks most likely to stop making their mortgage payments.

It would be so much more productive if the Porters and Vachons of the world elaborated on their logic when making public statements about mortgage rules. One would think (hope) they have internal numbers—like stress test results, arrears trends, etc.—to back up their arguments. As it stands, today’s publicly available data does not support Canada-wide down payment hikes for well-qualified young buyers.

When policy-makers see their subjects (bankers) asking for tighter equity requirements, they listen. In this case, hopefully they don’t listen too closely.