‘I don’t think it’s essential that a government financial institution provide mortgage insurance in Canada’
“Over time, I don’t think it’s essential that a government financial institution provide mortgage insurance in Canada. I think what’s key is that mortgage insurance is available at a reasonable cost in Canada. I think there is a role to regulate but whether we, the Canadian people, have to be the owners and shareholders of a financial institution to do this is a question. I don’t think it’s essential in the long run.”
He offered no timetable on when the government could get out of mortgage default insurance business, just offering it up as a possibility. “We have a list of Crowns, Crown agencies that are being reviewed,” said Mr. Flaherty.
In a wide-ranging discussion on the housing market, he said he has no plans to increase CMHC’s current $600-billion loan limit, ruled out any possibility of regulating foreign real estate investment and made it clear his focus is on the governance of Crown corp. which controls about 75% of the mortgage default insurance business in the country.
“For some time now I’ve had concerns about the large commercial role that CMHC now plays. CMHC has become a significant Canadian financial institution. As you know, historically it was created with a mandate post-war to advance housing in Canada. It’s become much more that.”
The shift comes with CMHC closing in on the $600-billion limit the government has for how much of its portfolio will be backstopped by the taxpayer. Three years ago it was $450-billion.
By law, consumers must buy mortgage default insurance if they have less than a 20% down payment on a home and are borrowing from a federally regulated financial institution.
But CMHC has not been insuring just those loans, it has agreed to step in and insure loans — with the premiums paid by financial institutions — for lower-ratio mortgages, or what is called “portfolio” or “bulk insurance.”
He said the head of OFSI will now have the power to look at the books of CMHC the way she looks at the books of other private financial institutions in Canada. Already, the government has placed the deputy minister of finance on the board of CMHC.
“We have quite a bit of information about what the banks do and don’t do. [Superintendent] Julie Dickson had to go to some of them in the last year and say ‘you must ensure that your board policies on residential lending mortgages are carried through,” he said. “She’s quite a strict supervisor which is good for our country.”
OSFI has already been looking into CMHC and established one of the key issues for the organization is governance. “OFSI are certainly of the view there are necessary governance improvements we can do,” said Mr. Flaherty.
He made it clear there are no plans to extend CMHC’s $600-billion limit. “For a while,” said Mr. Flaherty, about how long the Crown corporation would have to exist under that limit. It was at $541-billion at the end of the third quarter of last year but business has slowed as the agency culled its portfolio business.
Mr. Flaherty’s own opinion on the housing market is that has been fuelled by low interest rates which he says he does not control. “Cheap money,” he said, noting he did talk to the banks about being unhappy about their mortgage rate wars earlier this year which had reduced the rate on a five-year closed mortgage to below 3% — an all-time low.
As to whether the market has been in part fueled by foreign buyers, as many in the real estate industry have suggested, Mr. Flaherty said his government will not get involved in that aspect of the market. “No,” he said, pausing to emphasize the point. “I don’t think there is [a role]. They key in housing from my point of view is to get the best information on housing.”