Thursday, March 24, 2016

Canada`s Fiscal Policy Shift

Guest post by Norman Mogil
After nearly a decade of fiscal policy taking a back seat to monetary policy, the newly elected Liberal Government moved public spending into the driver`s seat with its first budget since the election last October. Canada will now use fiscal deficits to re-invigorate its limping economy. It has launched a policy of fiscal stimulus, lead by large infrastructure investment for at least the next five years. While the political analysts argue as to which election promises were kept and which were broken, the principle issue in the budget concerns the role of deficits in generating economic well-being.

Deficit financing has been used in Canada several times over the past four decades, as successive governments contended with economic downturns (Chart 1). Recovery from the severe recession of 1980-82 and again in  1991-93, Canada ran very large deficits - in excess of 4% of GDP. From 1997 to 2008 government finances returned to the black, only to be hit hard with the 2008 global crisis, necessitating a return to deficits in the order of 3% of GDP . That deficit position was ultimately eliminated by 2014-15.

Once again, Canada faces a very difficult economic environment and now turns to deficit financing to clear a path towards higher economic growth.

When the election was called in the summer of 2015, the Liberal Party advocated deficit spending and proposed a deficit of C$10 billion in the first year. By the time the budget was delivered on March 22, 2016, the forecasted deficit was increased to C$29 billion and the Government planned to run up a total C$100 billion in deficits over the next five years. What  happened in the interim between the election call and the budget delivery?

According to Finance Canada documents, surveys of private sector economists taken in June 2014, indicated a relatively robust growth path. ( Chart 2). However, the collapse in the commodity markets changed everything . Forecasts were significantly lowered for nominal growth GDP, by as much as 7% for 2017. The original deficit projections could no longer be justified.

The principal culprit was the severe drop in investment plans in the energy sector and its knock-on effects for the rest of the economy. Industrial sectors, outside of the energy-producing provinces, were suffering a decline in nominal incomes. Overall, capital investment in Canada has been on a decline for several years, and the collapse of commodity prices has only served to accentuate that decline. No longer can we count on the commodity sector to sustain economic growth.

Canadian governments at all levels have made considerable strides in reducing debt ratios over the past 25 years. Chart 3 traces the debt-to-GDP ratio for all governments over that period. The ratio has declined from nearly 90% in the mid -1990s to under 50% today. As the deficit ratio fell, the  bond rating agencies raised Canada's ratings  and today the country enjoys one of the highest ratings in the G-7 countries. Within the Federal sphere, the debt-to- GDP ratio has fallen from nearly 70% in the 1990s to just over 30% today. The 2016 budget projections expect that ratio to continue over the planning time horizon.

Starting in 2016-17, the deficit will be financed by a record issuance of C$133 billion of which C$92 billion is rolling over old debt from the previous borrowings and the balance represents the deficit to be financed this coming fiscal year. Interestingly,   Finance Canada recommends issuing bonds in the two-, three-, and five-year borrowing periods, rather than locking  into low rates for 10 - and 30-year bonds. One could argue that, given that much of the deficit arises from infrastructure investment, they should be financing with long term rates which are at historic lows. However, if the goal is to return to a balanced budget at the end of five years, then using short-term rates seems appropriate. This was the strategy of the Harper government as it sought to return to a balanced budget by 2015. Either way, today's borrowing costs affords an opportunity to expand the budget without measurably adding to the burden of interest costs.

Turning to Table 1, the outstanding Federal debt will be increased by C$113  billion over the period. Nonetheless, the debt as a percent of GDP remains static at approximately 30% throughout the period. And, more importantly, interest costs as a percent of total revenues marginally increase from 8.8% in 2016-17 to 10.3% in 2021. Both measures suggest that the Federal debt position is sustainable and does not impinge on the expansion of programs designed to stimulate the economy.

 In the past, Canada has relied on foreign capital inflows to help finance it public sector deficits. Given the Federal Government's sound bond rating and also that Canada's offers competitive interest rates - certainly higher than those in Europe or Japan - there is every reason to expect that the international investing community will look favourably upon future bond issuances.

The budget has prompted many forecasters to reassess their earlier growth projections.TD Canada and BAML both bumped up their forecasts for 2016 and 2017 on the strength of the proposed budget.  It is no secret that the Bank of Canada has had its hand stayed, awaiting Federal budget .This level of deficit spending will be welcomed by the Bank as a tool to augment its accommodating monetary policy. The central bank  estimates growth of 1.4 percent in 2016 and 2.4 percent in 2017, in the absence of fiscal stimulus. At least, the Bank now finds it has a partner in promoting economic growth.

A final word. With the EU countries under austerity regimes and the US operating with a relatively non-expansionary Federal budget, Canada now embarks upon a program of deficit financing to counter its problems of slow growth. It will be of interest to many other nations to see if this strategy is what is needed to pull out of the current weak economic environment.


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Sunday, March 13, 2016

Canada`s Changing Financial Landscape, Part 3: Lifecos and Real Estate

Guest post by Norman Mogil


Although innocent bystanders in the 2008 financial crisis, the life insurance companies were most impacted by the knock-on effects of the fall in equity prices, declines in long-term interest rates, poor credit quality of debt and a general decline in economic activity.

As Table 1 demonstrates, the industry remains permanently ( i.e. long lastingly) impaired. Share prices of the major lifecos are, largely, below pre-2008 levels and/or have not participated in the upswing of equity prices enjoyed by other financial institutions. Major lifecos, such as Manulife and Sunlife, remain well below levels of a decade ago. More importantly,  prior to the 2008 crisis, the industry commanded price-to-book values  of 2.5 times, only to see that metric drop down to 1.5 times today. The industry continues to face a challenge of repairing  balance sheets and of tailoring their products to reflect the changes in today`s economic environment.

Above all else, the lifecos have suffered at the hands of today's low-interest rate world. They are in a constant struggle to match  the return on assets to the requirements of future liabilities. Re-investing fixed income assets at successively lower rates, in effect, increases the risk of long-term liabilities. In particular, the liabilities most at risk are annuities and guaranteed income products. Low rates also affect reserves and capital margins, necessitating capital infusions to meet industry regulations.

Although the bulk of the industry`s assets are in fixed income, the industry was compelled to seek greater returns from equities and other asset classes-- the familiar "stretch for yield". Many of these other assets groups failed to provide the needed additional returns to offset the declining returns from bonds. For example, Manulife assumed a higher risk profile from the purchase of equities, specifically in the oil and gas sector; the slump in energy prices has hurt profitability. Any mismatch between assets and liabilities leads to profit volatility, a state of affairs that continues to exist.

Persistent low-interest rates are changing the product mix that lifecos offers, for example:
  • certain long-term guarantee products will likely disappear ( e.g. permanent life insurance);
  • some risks will be shared with customers; and,
  • premiums will rise, at the risk of losing potential customers.
One bright spot is that the aging population allows the industry to expand its
wealth management business. The industry is increasing its ``investment  type``
products, such as mutual funds, universal life policies and managed accounts. The growth of this segment is reflecting the maturity of the baby boomers and their needs for retirement income. Finally, given that the domestic market is quite mature, if not saturated, the majors are looking at markets internationally, especially in Asia.

The Canadian Housing Market

If you live in Toronto or Vancouver, you cannot help but be confronted constantly by conversations about the hot housing market. Continuing a trend started more than a decade ago, home prices in these two cities registered double-digit increases in 2015. The accompanying Table 2  shows that Vancouver's home prices increased by over 20% and Toronto's by more than 10% in the past year; whereas, the rest of the country exhibited  quite modest increases. The reasons behind this two-city housing market were examined previously. (

There has been no end of warnings by domestic and international organizations that the Canadian housing market is primed for a major fall, a correction that many consider long overdue. The Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation ( a crown corporation) cites the " problematic overvaluation conditions in local markets". The OECD claims that the Canadian market is anywhere from 30-50% overvalued. It is not our intention to get into this debate directly. Rather, we want to point out a number of mitigating conditions that will operate to cushion, if not actually prevent, any  major decline in house prices.

From the borrowers' perspective, one of the most often cited metrics is that which measures the level of household debt  to household incomes. There is no magic ratio that will automatically trigger a significant market decline. No one can answer the question: how high is too high? What is more relevant is the nature of  the household sector's balance sheet.

Table 3 sets out some basic parameters by which to judge the vulnerability of the housing market from the perspective of household wealth. In the past 12 months, households' net worth to disposable income has increased by more than 2%. At the same time, debt-to-assets remain constant at a very low level of 17%. And, most importantly, owner's equity in their homes remains constant at 73%, indicating that homeowners have amassed a considerable amount of equity. Hence, there is an adequate buffer within the household sector, providing stability in the housing market.

From the mortgage lender's perspective, over the past 5 years, the Federal government has tightened up lending practices by:
  • reducing  amortization periods from 40 years to 25 years;
  • reducing  the loan-to-value( LTV) lending percentage from 95% to 80%;
  • reducing the cap on gross debt services levels, and
  • upping  the insurance premiums on mortgages with less than 10% down payment.
The commercial banks dominate the mortgage market, capturing over 80% of all mortgages issued. These lenders' have been relatively conservative in their management of their mortgage portfolio. On average, the major banks have issued mortgages with an LTV between 65-70%, and , in addition,  50-60% of all mortgages are insured (Chart 1). For the industry as a whole, 3% of its total loan portfolio is in uninsured real estate in Alberta. In sum, there is  a considerable buffer created by the banks and the insurers in the event of a sharp decline in housing prices. Both borrowers and lenders are reasonably able to maintain stability in the Canadian market.

Summing Up

The Canadian financial institutions have weathered the storm of the 2008 crisis, yet many challenges lie ahead. Investment dealers are struggling with changes due to technological innovation, government regulations, and a seriously weakened natural resource sector. The commercial banks are challenged by persistently low interest rates and the current weakness in the energy sector and its spillover into the national economy. The lifecos are looking at new strategies to ease the task of matching assets and long-term liabilities in an effort to stabilize profits.


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Sunday, March 6, 2016

China's Wealth Management Products, a Q&A

We've had a number of questions regarding the growth and the risks surrounding China's Wealth Management Products (WMPs). Here is an overview in a Q&A format.

Q: What are the reasons for the continuing demand and proliferation of WMPs in China?

1. China's bank deposit rates have been extremely low over the past decade and until recently have been artificially capped by the nation's central bank, the PBoC. The reason for these low rates is Beijing's effort to make sure that the banking system has access to cheap financing in order to stimulate credit growth.

Source: Tradingeconomics, PBoC

These days, awash with deposits, many banks pay even less than the latest rate set by the PBoC. Here is one example showing why China's depositors have been desperate for yield.

Source: Bank of China (one of the 5 biggest state-owned commercial banks in China)

2. Another reason for the explosion in WMPs in China is the rapid growth in money supply, with limited options to deploy all the new cash. The chart below shows China's  broad money supply (M2), now 15 times the size it was at the end of 1999. That's a great deal of liquidity sloshing around.

3. More money poured into WMOs last year after the massive "correction" in China's stock market, as investors looked for other sources of yield.

Q. What rates do banks offer to their WMP customers?
A. In 2015 the typical WMP product yield ranged between 4.5% and 5%.

Q. What is the typical WMP term?
A. According to HSBC, "more than 90% of China’s fixed duration WMPs are shorter than a year".

Source: HSBC

Q. How do WMPs generate returns?
A. These days most are invested in corporate bonds although some also invest in private loans. The most popular type of bond in WMPs' asset portfolios is a AA corporate (domestic agency ratings of course) with a 4-5 year maturity.

Q. What is the yield on such bonds currently and is it sufficient to pay the WMP rates?
A. Here is the RMB AA corporate yield curve. With a little help from leverage (usually via the repo market) and/or a big duration mismatch, WMPs generate the necessary yield.

Source: HSBC

Q. Has the WMP growth impacted corporate bond yields in China?
A. Yes. Since early 2014, China's corporate bond yields have been steadily declining. A great deal of this is the result of China's WMP demand.

Source: S&P

Q. Who manages WMPs?
A. While banks actively market these products, these days the management is outsourced to brokers (and other non-bank entities) with asset management/trading desks. Banks used to manage WMPs but due to regulatory and resource constraints have shifted the process to third parties.

Q. What sort of arrangements do banks have with WMP managers?
A. WMP managers operate like hedge funds, retaining 20-30% of the upside above the "guaranteed" contractual return of 4.5% - 5% (this is on top of the management fees).

Q. What type of risks are inherent in this market?
A. Given the hedge-fund style upside, this can be an extremely profitable business, encouraging higher leverage as rates decline. Since this activity is concentrated outside of the banking system, it is not yet regulated, resulting in rapid growth in China's "shadow banking". In fact this is one of the key reasons the PBoC has been so reluctant to lower the target interest rate, focusing on the reserve ratio (RRR) instead. Lower rates will encourage further "reach for yield" and increase leverage in the system.

An even greater systemic risk in the WMP market is the asset-liability mismatch - one of the key problems that precipitated the financial crisis in the United States (funding illiquid mortgage bonds with asset-backed commercial paper or repo). The chart below shows the amount of WMP placed vs. what is actually reported at year-end by banks. Many WMPs are timed to mature before the bank reporting date ("window dressing"). Most WMPs of course mature several times a year and the industry relies on the WMP customers to roll (on a net basis) their maturing WMPs. Moreover the market's tremendous growth has banks and managers believing that rolling would not be an issue. If some investors pull their money out, there will always be plenty of new ones wanting to come in. Sounds familiar?

Source: HSBC

Q. Why isn't Beijing addressing this rising systemic risk?
A. The PBoC has to tread carefully in order to avoid disrupting its growing domestic bond markets. The situation is quite fragile and any hint of a serious regulation could send the corporate and other bond markets tumbling (starting a deleveraging cycle). As the regulators try to figure out how to contain these risks (including endless discussions with the major banks), the WMP market continues to grow.


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Canada's Changing Financial Landscape: Part 2, Banking

Guest post by Norman Mogil

Canadians generally take pride  that their banks have been able to weather the 2008 storm well and continue to exhibit solid performance . Recent financial results point to growing profits, increases in dividends and improvements in reserve requirements. Yet, the industry is aware of serious challenges from the collapse of oil prices as well as the challenges that all banks worldwide face from a low or negative interest rate environment. In this blog we will look at what will influence the performance of the Canadian banks in the near term.

For the benefit of our American readers, we should point out there are significant differences  between the Canadian and US banking systems. The industry in Canada is dominated by six large banks ( Big Six) which are national in scope, each having as many as one thousand branches throughout the country and each providing a full range of commercial and personal banking services ( much like the money centre banks in the US) . There are  dozens of much smaller banks that operate only regionally or in specific market segments In the US, even after a consolidation ,post-2008, there are about 7000  commercial banks and savings institutions , the majority of which operate independently only in local communities and have no national presence.

Canadian banks feature a high percentage of assets in personal loans, especially mortgages; whereas, the US banks sell their loans through the securitization market. The Canadian banks carry very little risk of loss since higher loan-to-value mortgages must carry mortgage insurance.

Finally, the Canadian financial regulatory environment has remained basically untouched even after the 2008 crisis; the US industry underwent dramatic changes that are still being  implemented to this day. With a more stable regulatory environment, the Canadian industry is able to operate with little disruption, compared to what we see happening in the US and in the European market(1)

Lets turn our attention to challenges facing the Canadian industry. To begin, we note the structure of  banks assets and revenues. Chart 1 sets out the asset classes and their relative importance.

Personal lending occupies more than half of all bank assets; personal accounts make up 16% and mortgages for an additional 36%. Business loans make up 31% of all assets. These proportions have remained relatively static over the years.

Regarding revenues, Table 1 reveals that the prime source of revenue ( 47%) is net interest income (NII), the basis of all banking operations. Ever since the banks purchased securities dealers in the 1990s, the industry has grown to rely increasing on capital market returns which ,on average, account for about 21% of all revenues. Finally, the Canadian banks have  steadily increased the importance of fee-based income which now generates about 1/3 of its total revenues. The question we need to explore are :  what  factors will impact bank revenues and, hence , profits going forward?

There are four developments that need to be watched carefully as the industry copes with a changing environment.

1) Asset growth slowing. Domestic personal lending, especially mortgages has slowed . The banks are concerned with their exposure to that segment of their portfolio in view of weak economic growth and, especially, the impact of a hard-hit energy sector. Caution has taken hold.

2) Exposure to the energy sector. Canada's depressed energy sector is now hitting the banking community. The banks have steadily increased  provisions for loan losses with each  new quarterly reporting. However many analysts are arguing that these provisions are insufficient. The banks are conducting various stress tests to counter these arguments. Only six months ago, the price of oil was around $60 bbl and now trades at $30-35 bbl; the full impact of this dramatic decline has not yet been felt by lenders. The longer oil prices remain at this level, the more we can anticipate corporate and  personal loan losses will climb .Time is not on the side of the banks in this regard.

Industry analysts have been trying to get a handle on just what is the exposure  of the Big Six  to the oil patch. Exposure takes two forms: 1) direct outstanding loans and 2) untapped credit lines. In the accompanying Chart 2, according to, the total outstanding exposure is C$107 billion, not the C$ 50 billion highlighted by the banks in their recent quarterly reports. The difference lies principally in how much of untapped credit lines exist and other commitments the banks have undertaken to support clients. To be fair, these commitments in total will overstate the banks' actual risks, since not all lenders will draw down  all these lines, even in times of  greater difficulties; nevertheless, as the energy  sector continues to operate in this tough environment , the banks' exposure needs to  be watched closely.

Source: @business

3) Narrowing  of net interest margins (NII). The biggest single determinant of bank profits is the shape of the yield curve. Particularly ominous for the banks is the spread between short- and long-term rates, between the 2 and 10 year rates. Banks do well by borrowing short and lending long; the  steeper the  yield curve, the greater the opportunity for profits. However, as Table 2 clearly points out, the trend has been moving in the opposite direction. This spread has narrowed considerably, from 100bps in 2014 to just 54bps in 2016. In an era of super low interest rates, this narrowing of the spread is putting tremendous pressure on the banks to generate profit growth quarter after quarter. Worse yet, the decline in long term rates herald a weakening economy and deflationary developments, further pressuring profitability. The spectre of negative interests, as is the case in Europe and Japan, is also of great concern to the Canadian banking community.

4) Capital market volatility.   Capital market revenues have to be earned afresh each day. That is, the revenues are a combination of trading profits, underwriting and advisory services, and as such exhibit a lot of volatility. As such, these revenues cannot be relied upon as a consistent and recurring source of income in comparison to mortgages or business loans. Moreover, as we explained in Part 1 of this series, this segment of the industry is undergoing major structural adjustments and profitability is becoming  illusive. ( ).

5) Housing market .Canada's housing market poses an additional challenge to improving NII. There are many different opinions as to when and to what degree a slowdown in housing prices will take place. It is clear, however, that mortgage originations are not going to continue at the recent rapid rates of growth. The banks have signaled that are  they concerned  regarding the connection between household debt and home prices.  Given that mortgages represent about half of all loans outstanding, this possible slowdown combined with a flattening yield curve will impinge on NII.

We will look at this housing and mortgage topic in Part 3 of this series.

(1) See the CIBC  Bank Primer - 2015


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