How Big Is the Problem? Canada’s Economy and Household Debt

For most Canadians debt is a fact of life, at least at some point. Borrowing can help someone get a higher education, or buy a new car, or purchase a home. Simply put, debt is a tool that allows people to smooth out their spending throughout their life.

The amount of debt held by Canadian households has been rising for about 30 years, not just in absolute terms but also relative to the size of the economy. At the end of last year, Canadian households owed just over $2 trillion. Mortgages make up almost three-quarters of this debt.

While debt is indispensable for our modern way of life, it has been a growing preoccupation for the Bank of Canada for several years now. That is because high debt levels can make us vulnerable to negative events—individuals as well the entire economy.

There are two ways to look at this. Traditionally, our focus has been on the vulnerability of Canada’s financial system arising from elevated indebtedness. This means analyzing how our banks would manage a serious economic recession with high unemployment and increasing debt defaults. But the Bank is also focused on the vulnerability of our economy to rising interest rates, given high household debt. There is little doubt that the economy is more sensitive to higher interest rates today than it was in the past, and that global and domestic interest rates are on the rise.

Two trillion dollars of debt is a big number. Let us try to put some context around it. A common way to measure household debt is to compare it with the amount of disposable income people have. In Canada’s case, household debt is around 170 per cent of disposable income. In other words, the average Canadian owes about $1.70 for every dollar of income he or she earns per year, after taxes.

That ratio is a Canadian record, and up from about 100 per cent 20 years ago. Although this ratio is on the high side, other economies such as Sweden, Norway and Australia have even more household debt relative to disposable income.

This international comparison reveals some common factors. Like Canada, the countries I just mentioned have all seen decades of steadily rising house prices. They all have high rates of homeownership and deep, well-developed mortgage markets. Like Canada, mortgages in Australia are typically amortized over 25 to 30 years. In Norway and Sweden, you can find mortgages where the homeowner is only making interest payments, and the principal is passed on from one generation to the next.

Aspiring to own a home is part of our culture. It is also a way to build wealth for the future, as house prices have tended to rise faster than incomes.

Source: Bank of Canada


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