Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. is cutting back on mortgages it insures as the Crown corporation edges closer to a $600-billion cap imposed on it by the federal government, the Financial Post has learned.
A CMHC spokesman confirmed that it had approached a number of lenders at the end of 2011 about reducing its “bulk or portfolio insurance” after third-quarter results showed the agency had committed to back $541-billion in mortgages. CMHC, which guarantees mortgages held by financial institutions, is ultimately backed by the federal government and needs approval to go over the $600-billion limit — something that would create greater risk for taxpayers should the housing market collapse.
“CMHC has recently received an unexpected level of requests for large amounts of CMHC portfolio insurance.” said Charles Sauriol, a spokesman for the Crown corporation, in an email.
“To ensure equitable access to portfolio insurance within CMHC’s annual limits, an allocation process is being established which has caused some delays. Portfolio insurance provides lenders with the ability to purchase insurance on pools of previously uninsured low ratio mortgages and does not impact CMHC’s transactional business.”
Financial institutions are required to have mortgage-default insurance when a consumer has less than 20% equity. However, the banks have been seeking insurance on loans with even high downpayments — something not required by law — so they can securitize those bulk lending loans, thereby getting them off their balance sheets and reducing their capital requirements. In those cases in which the loans to value is less than 80%, the bank pays the insurance charge instead of the consumer.
“One of the things that has got them [to the limit] faster than expected is they are doing a lot of conventional insurance for lenders,” said one source. Just three years ago, CMHC had $450-billion in loans it was backstopping and had to go to the government to get that increased to $600-billion.
“I think as a taxpayer you should care. The policy question is why should the Canadian taxpayer take that type of meltdown risk within CMHC,” the source said.
The risk to the taxpayer would be a collapse in the market leading to a defaults like the U.S. saw. If CMHC couldn’t cover those defaults, Ottawa is on the hook for 100% of any shortfall.
On the surface, insuring conventional loans may not appear as risky as traditional mortgage default insurance because it comes with more equity. The banks have been demanding ultra low fees on the conventional mortgages, arguing the equity position makes them a lower risk. However, lenders are skimming their portfolio to load up mortgages that are 70% to 80% debt to equity and may also have other problems, said a source.
With mortgage defaults well below 1%, some might argue the risk to CMHC is negligible. “If you look at what is backing [CMHC’s] guarantee, it should be more than enough to cover any downturn in the market,” said one banking source, who asked not to be identified, about CMHC’s cash reserves. “Besides, what will the government do, not increase their limit? This could kill the entire housing market.”
CMHC gave no indication it would seek an increase in its limit.
“CMHC’s mortgage loan insurance limit in force is $600-billion. CMHC manages its mortgage loan insurance business in accordance with this limit,” said Mr. Sauriol.
The Crown corporation would be going to the government looking for an increase in its limit at a time when both Bank of Canada Governor Mark Carney and Finance Minister Jim Flaherty have been casting a wary eye at the housing market.
“We watch the housing market carefully and we are prepared to intervene if necessary. Having said that, we’re not about to intervene in the housing market now,” said Mr. Flaherty this month. For his part, Mr. Carney said “we see that in a number of real estate markets in Canada, valuations are at a minimum, firm; in others, they’re probably overvalued. So there are risks there.”
Sources have indicated the government is already considering tough new measures for calculating how the self-employed qualify for loans and tightening regulations for condominium buyers, so there is probably little appetite for backstopping even more debt from CMHC. In addition to CMHC, the government has a $300-billion limit for private mortgage default insurers.