More debt … and more interest (February 2019)
The fact that debt levels of Canadian households have been increasing over the past decade and a half can’t really be called news anymore. In particular, the ratio of debt-to-household-income, which stood at 93% in 2005, has risen steadily since then and, as of the third quarter of 2018, reached (another) new record of 177.5%. In other words, the average Canadian household owed $1.78 for every dollar of disposable (after-tax) income. (The Statistics Canada publication reporting those findings can be found on the StatsCan website at https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/daily-quotidien/181214/dq181214a-eng.htm.)
Repeated announcements of yet another increase in the average debt-to-household income ratio have become almost routine over the past 15 years — the latest statistics are reported in the media and concern is expressed by financial planners and, sometimes, government and banking officials, but there has not been any sustained change in consumer behavior. Starting a year and a half ago, however, something did change. Debt didn’t just get bigger, it got more expensive — five successive times. In June of 2016 the Bank Rate set by the Bank of Canada, on which financial institutions base their lending rates, was 0.75%, and had not changed in the previous two years. Starting in July 2016, that rate was increased in five separate announcements over the next 18 months and, as of January 2019, it stands at 2%.
Like most economic events, the explosive growth in the average debt of Canadian households over the past fifteen years can’t be attributed to a single cause. What’s undeniable however, is that two of the major causes of that growth in debt were first, interest rates which were the lowest on record since before the Great Depression and second, a remarkable run-up in Canadian residential real estate values. Money was cheap and, when debt was secured against home equity, it was frequently incurred in the belief that the increased amount of such debt would soon be covered, or outstripped, by an increase in the value of the underlying real estate. And, since interest rates were so low, the cost of carrying that increased debt was very manageable.
To some extent, both those circumstances have changed. Canadian real estate values are still high by historic standards and, while those values have softened in some areas of the country, there has been nothing like the “crash” in such real estate prices which happened in the late 1980s. However, the era of ultra-cheap money seems to be over, and interest rates are clearly on the increase. While it’s impossible to say how high interest rates will go, and how quickly, it’s prudent to assume at least that rates won’t be going down any time soon.
As the Bank of Canada has announced successive increases in the bank rate, financial institutions have inevitably responded by increasing the interest rates charged on all forms of borrowing. In other words, even if the amount of debt carried by Canadian families hasn’t changed in the last 18 months, the cost of carrying that debt has certainly gone up. The effect of such change is measurable: as noted by the credit reporting agency Equifax, the proportion of Canadians who pay off their credit cards in full each month has declined (as measured on a year-over-year basis) each month since August 2017.
There is no instant fix for anyone who has taken on debt and is now finding that repaying (or even servicing) that debt has become more difficult, or even impossible. There are, however, steps which can be taken to get that debt under control and even, eventually, to be become debt-free. And, there is help available through debt and credit counselling provided by any number of non-profit agencies. Those agencies work with individuals, and with their creditor(s), to create both a realistic budget and a manageable debt repayment schedule. More information on the credit counselling process, and a listing of such non-profit agencies can be found at http://creditcounsellingcanada.ca/.