The Bank of Canada’s recent decision to raise interest rates generated a lot of media attention, for the most part because while the increase itself was only one quarter of a percentage point, it was the first move made by the Bank of Canada to increase rates in the past seven years. Much of the media coverage of the rate change centered around the effect that change might or might not have on the current real estate market. One of the issues under discussion was whether this or future increases in interest rates (and therefore mortgage rates) would act as a barrier to those seeking to get into the housing market. And a phrase that was prominent in that discussion — the mortgage financing “stress test” — is likely one that is unfamiliar to most Canadians, even those who are affected by it.
When anyone seeks to borrow money, for whatever purpose, a key factor in whether they will be able to obtain a loan is, of course, their ability to repay the loan on the terms set, including the interest rate to be levied. That same consideration applies when an individual or a couple apply for approval or pre-approval of a mortgage. However, a mortgage differs from other kinds of consumer debt in a few significant ways. First, a mortgage is likely to be the largest debt any Canadian takes on in his or her lifetime. Second, a mortgage is paid off over a much longer period of time — typically 25 years — than any other type of debt. And, finally, because of that lengthy repayment period, a mortgage is the only kind of significant consumer debt in which the interest rate which will be payable over the entire life of the loan can’t be determined prior to the time the initial financing is approved.
When mortgage financing is provided to a home buyer, there are two factors, besides the amount of the loan, which determine how much the monthly mortgage payments will be. The first is the amortization period, or the length of time over which the mortgage loan will be repaid. The second is the mortgage term, which is the time period for which the interest rate for the mortgage is fixed. That term is always shorter than the amortization period – for most mortgage financing in Canada, the longest term which can be obtained is 10 years, although most mortgage terms are shorter than that. Since the interest rate for that term is fixed, both the borrower and the lender know how much the mortgage payments will be for the entire length of that term and what percentage of the borrower’s current income will be required to make those payments.
In determining whether a borrower will be able to repay the mortgage loan as required, mortgage lenders rely on two debt-to-income ratios, known as Gross Debt Service (GDS) and Total Debit Service (TDS). The two are similar, but not the same.
The GDS ratio measures how much of the would-be borrower’s income will be needed to meet his or her housing costs. For any particular mortgage borrower, GDS represents the total of mortgage payments, property taxes, heating costs, and — where applicable — one-half of condo fees. Optimally, that total figure will represent less than 35% of the would-be borrower’s income.
Of course, most Canadians carry one or more kinds of consumer debt besides their mortgages, and so it’s necessary to determine their cost of servicing that total debt as a percentage of income. That figure is their TDS, which is the total of housing expenses (as calculated for purposes of GDS) plus any other debt repayment, including car loans, credit cards, lines of credit, and student loans. Optimally, the total amount of housing costs plus other repayment will be less than 42% of the would-be borrower’s income.
Where a would-be borrower is particularly credit-worthy (e.g., he or she has a reliable source of income and a good credit history), lenders will provide mortgage financing even where the optimal debt ratios indicated above are exceeded. However, the maximum GDS and TDS ratios allowed are, respectively, 39% and 44%.
While the GDS and TDS ratios do provide a reasonable measure of the ability of a prospective borrower to repay funds advanced to him or her, the weakness of those ratios are that they provide only a “snapshot” of the individual’s housing costs and debt repayment costs at a particular point in time and, more significantly, at current interest rates. As everyone knows, interest rates in Canada are, and have been for several years, at or near records lows and that many Canadians have taken advantage of those low rates. Specifically, as of the first quarter of 2017, the average debt load of Canadian households (including mortgage debt) stood at 167.3% of disposable income.
The combination of those two factors means that Canadian households are, on average, carrying much higher levels of debt (as a percentage of disposable income) and that the cost of carrying such debt is at or near record lows. When, as has recently proven the case, those interest rates begin to rise, such increase has the potential to put Canadian households on financial thin ice. And that possibility is what gave rise to the introduction by the federal government of the “stress test” which might equally well be called the “what-if?” test.
It’s possible to purchase a home in Canada with a down payment of 5%, where the cost of the home is $500,000 or less. Where the purchase price of the home is over $500,000, the minimum down payment is 5% for the first $500,000, and 10% for the remaining portion. However, regardless of the cost of the home, where the total down payment to be made is less than 20% of the purchase price, mortgage loan insurance is required, and such insurance is provided by a federal government agency, the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC). As of the fall of 2016, all new prospective mortgage loans which must obtain mortgage loan insurance through CMHC (i.e., all those with less than 20% down payment) are subject to the new “stress test” requirement.
Basically, the stress test requires that lenders assess a would-be mortgage borrower’s ability to manage their debt, not only at current interest rates, but at the higher rates which those borrowers will certainly face sometime during the life of their mortgage. Carrying out a stress test is, in fact, something which financial planners advise clients to do as part of financial planning whenever taking on debt is contemplated. It’s simply prudent (especially where debt is longer term in nature and consequently higher payments resulting from an increase in interest rates is inevitable) to consider, not just whether the debt is manageable at current interest rates, but whether it will remain manageable where those interest rates rise by 1, 2, or 3% — or more. The “stress test” simply creates a requirement out of something that was always a good idea.
Under the stress test, for borrowers to qualify for mortgage insurance through CMHC, their GDS and TDS debt-servicing ratios must be no higher than the maximum allowable levels when calculated using the greater of the rate provided to them by their lender or the Bank of Canada’s conventional five-year posted rate. That Bank of Canada rate is typically higher than the rate that mortgage borrowers actually pay. For instance, the lowest five-year fixed rate mortgage interest rate offered by a major Canadian bank as of the end of July was 2.59%. At the same time, the Bank of Canada five-year posted rate was 4.84%.
It’s true that the application of the “stress test” as interest rates rise will cause more borrowers to be unable to qualify for a mortgage, or will require them to reduce their expectations in terms of the amount of mortgage financing for which they can qualify. But, it’s also the case that would-be borrowers who cannot “pass” a stress test are the very borrowers who would be put most at risk by an increase in interest rates. Where interest rates will be a year or two from now is something that no one — including the Bank of Canada — knows. It is undoubtedly disappointing for would-be borrowers to have to reduce their expectations with respect to the amount of mortgage financing (and therefore the “amount” of house) they can obtain. That scenario is, however, infinitely preferable to one in which they discover down the road that they can no longer afford to carry their mortgage at the higher interest rates then in effect, and are at risk of defaulting on that mortgage and potentially losing their home.