The Debt load of Canadian households – onward and upward?


The fact that Canadian households are carrying a significant amount of debt is not news.  In fact, debt loads seem to continually set new records. For several years, both private sector financial advisers and federal government banking and finance officials have warned of the risks being taken by Canadians who took advantage of historically low interest rates by continuing to increase their secured and unsecured debt.

The risks most commonly cited by those advising more borrowing restraint was the impact that an increase in interest rates would have on the ability of those debtors to repay  the debt which they had accumulated. As well, to the extent that such borrowings were secured by home equity, the risk was that a downturn in the real estate market could put those borrowers at risk.

Both of those circumstances have started to materialize in the last two calendar quarters. The Canada-wide real estate market is not in a downturn. However, the expectation among borrowers that real estate values in major urban markets would simply continue to increase without limit has been tempered by the drop in real estate sales in the Greater Toronto Area since the spring of this year. While real estate prices in that market are still up, as measured on a year-over-year basis, they have declined, overall, from the highs recorded in the winter and early spring of 2017.

The long-anticipated increase in interest rates has finally occurred as well; The Bank of Canada raised the interest rate for the first time since September 2010. Financial institutions responded by increasing their mortgage and other loan interest rates.

The end of June, just prior to The Bank of Canada’s first interest rate increase, marked the end of second quarter of 2017. And, as is usually the case, many government and non-government organizations issued statistics and analysis of the current state of Canadian consumer debt. Given the timing, those figures will create a kind of benchmark against which future statistical summaries will be compared, as they create a “snapshot” of the state of Canadian consumer debt taken just as interest rates began to rise, at the end of the ultra-low interest rate environment which began in 2009, and as the ultra-hot real estate market started to cool down.

As of the end of June, the debt to disposable income ratio stood at $1.68, meaning that the average Canadian household carried $1.68 in debt for each $1.00 of disposable (after-tax) income.

While it’s easy to see that an increasing debt-to disposable income ratio means that Canadians are taking on more debt. What is striking is the growth of that ratio over the past quarter century and, especially, since 2005.

In 1990, that percentage stood at 93%, meaning that the debt load of the average Canadian household was 93% of disposable income. By 2005, the debt-to-disposable ratio had risen to 108%. It took 15 years for the percentage to increase from 93% (in 1990) to 108% (in 2005). From that point, the debt to disposable income ratio accelerated dramatically, as it rose from 108% in 2005 to 150% just five years later, in 2010. The ratio now stands, as of the second quarter of 2017, at 168%.

The StatsCanada figure captures all forms of debt; secured and unsecured, meaning that it includes mortgages, car loans, installment loans of all kinds, lines of credit, and credit card debt. There are a couple of significant differences between secured and unsecured debt — secured debt, by definition, is secured against an asset, so that in the event the borrower goes into default, the lender can seize the asset in payment of the secured debt. The value of that asset is always, at the time of borrowing, greater than the amount borrowed. Unsecured debt is provided on no more than the borrower’s promise to repay. For both those reasons, it’s more likely that borrowers, when faced with an interest rate increase which bumps up their cost of borrowing, will get into difficulty with unsecured debt. And, as of the second quarter of 2017, the average unsecured debt owed by individual Canadians was for the first time, over $22,000.

That figure — $22,154 average debt load per individual borrower — appeared in a summary issued by TransUnion. The summary also outlines the average balance per borrower by the kind of debt incurred, as follows:

Bank card (credit card) ………… $4,069

Automobile …………………………… $20,447

Line of Credit ………………………… $30,108

Installment Loan …………………… $25,455

And, as recently reported by the Financial Consumer Agency of Canada, recent trends in secured debt patterns may also give rise to concern going forward.

One of the fastest growing consumer credit products in Canada is the home equity line of credit (HELOC). A HELOC is similar to a mortgage, in that the debt is secured against the homeowner’s equity in the property. However, under a HELOC, a lender agrees to provide credit to a borrower, not for a fixed amount, but up to a maximum amount, based on the value of the property. Once the HELOC is in place, the available funds can be used for any purpose, whether that purpose is related to home ownership or not. And, while monthly payments are required, the borrower can usually, if he or she wishes, pay only the interest amount which has accrued since the last payment, without reducing the principal at all.

The number of households that have a HELOC and a mortgage secured against their home has increased by nearly 40 percent since 2011.

  • 40 percent of consumers do not make regular payments toward their HELOC principal.
  • 25 percent of consumers pay only the interest or make the minimum payment.
  • Most consumers do not repay their HELOC in full until they sell their home.

If there is good news in the figures summarizing the ever-increasing debt load of Canadians, from all sources, it’s in the fact that borrowers are still managing to keep payment of those debts in good standing. In fact, delinquency rates (meaning debts on which payments are more than 90 days late) are, for the most part, down during the second quarter of this year, as measured on both a quarter-over-quarter and year-over-year basis. Whether that trend will continue or be reversed as the impact of the recent interest rate increases takes hold remains to be seen.