Business·Analysis

Bank of Canada must open people's eyes to debt sinkhole danger: Don Pittis

Rising real estate prices are unsustainable, but experts say ordinary Canadians just don't realize the dangers of debt. Don Pittis looks at a plan to guarantee they understand all the risks.

Canadians need to know the downside of debt before committing

Canada's economy is at risk of falling into a sinkhole of debt, but Don Pittis explains there is something that can be done to prevent it. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

There is a risk that Canada will fall into an Ottawa sinkhole of debt, and worse, there is a serious danger that Canadians will tumble in without having understood the hazard. But there is something the Bank of Canada could do about it.

As we saw on Thursday, Bank of Canada governor Stephen Poloz appears terrified of disturbing our economic road built on inflated house prices and unsustainable debt. Poloz repeatedly said he is not predicting a real estate downturn, just that "the risk, whatever it is, is growing."

As Canadian personal debt keeps bouncing higher, the question is whether individuals signing on the dotted line for enormous loans actually realize what they are getting into.

Evidence from Newfoundland and Labrador, where house prices have begun to fall just as other costs are rising and job markets weaken, indicates that Canadians really don't understand the dangerous downside of overwhelming debt.
A sign advertising a long-planned condo project in downtown St. John's has been chopped down now that the local economy has gone off the boil, leaving people more burdened with debt than expected. (CBC)

"They're feeling like the goal posts have moved," says Robin Whitaker, a St. John's anthropologist interviewing first-time homebuyers to study the effect of debt on the lives of ordinary people. She says anxiety levels are increasing as the provincial government's austerity budget pushes up the annual cost of living by as much as $6,000 per household, according to some estimates. 

"Quite a few people are feeling like they did all the right things you are told to do," says Whitaker. "About making sure you're careful. Making sure you can afford it. And all of a sudden their expenses are rising."

In such a situation, the loss of a job or a forced move while house prices are well below what the family paid could be devastating for household finances.

Willingness to push the limit on debt isn't just a Newfoundland problem. It's just that they are on the other side of an unexpected financial crisis that could just as easily happen in parts of the country where people remain exuberant, such as Toronto and Vancouver.

"We all as consumers have difficulties with self-control," says Saul Schwartz, an expert in consumer debt who teaches behavioural economics at Carleton University. "That means you drink too much and get a hangover, you eat too much and gain weight, you buy things and end up more in debt than you wanted to be."

But while the urge to have it all now is one reason for growing consumer indebtedness, Schwartz says it's only half of the problem.

"Lenders, retailers, anybody who you might be buying things from, takes advantage of that lack of self-control and they are not sufficiently regulated," Schwartz says.

This week, comedian John Oliver took a droll look at the results of the hangover stage of debt, where people's promises to pay are traded as assets and sold off to collection agencies even after those debts are legally void.

Anyone can make a mistake, but Schwartz says people who understand very little about how financial markets, mortgages and interest rates work often make long-term commitments without really understanding the long-term costs and long-term dangers.

Attracted by low interest rates, manageable monthly payments and property prices that they think have nowhere to go but up, many optimistic Canadians are just a job loss or rate rise away from trouble. 

While the Bank of Canada is reluctant to raise interest rates, law professor Lauren Willis has devised a scheme she says would assure regulators that consumers aren't getting in over their heads — at least not without realizing it.

"If you go out and survey people, you find out that people have no idea what they agreed to, or that they think they agreed to the opposite of what they actually agreed to," says Willis, citing a U.S case where people signed up for a credit card online without even realizing it. 

She proposes something called "customer confusion testing." She says it is especially essential in an era when people can sign up with an online click. And when sales agents are motivated by commissions. 

Conventional consumer rules instruct businesses on the wording or type size of the information they must provide. Instead, Willis wants regulators to put the onus on the companies to prove customers have actually followed the bouncing ball.

"Instead we need to say: 'You must produce random sample consumer testing that shows at least 75% of your customers understood,'" she says.

​Willis says outside agencies could be hired by the firm at a reasonable cost to do the testing. And if the company fails the comprehension test? Then it's back to the drawing board until it does.

"Maybe people don't enjoy reading," she says. "Maybe they'd rather watch a video." 

It would be up to the seller or lender to make sure the customer understands.

If the property markets crashed today, there is little the Bank of Canada could do to prevent homeowners from suffering losses. Perhaps that's why Poloz was so reluctant to entertain that possibility.

But making sure people truly understand the potential consequences of buying into a property market that Poloz calls "unsustainable" might prevent the problem from getting worse. And at least the people making a long-term commitment that will affect their lives will be going in with their eyes wide open.

Follow Don on Twitter @don_pittis

​More analysis by Don Pittis

About the Author

Don Pittis

Business columnist

Don Pittis was a forest firefighter, and a ranger in Canada's High Arctic islands. After moving into journalism, he was principal business reporter for Radio Television Hong Kong before the handover to China. He has produced and reported for the CBC in Saskatchewan and Toronto and the BBC in London. He is currently senior producer at CBC's business unit.

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