Subprime lending - Canada's dirty, little secret?
Does Canada have a dirty, little, subprime lending secret? Looks like it.
As the U.S. financial sector began to crumble under the weight of subprime mortgage lending last fall, and so many regular Americans were facing foreclosure, Canadians voyeristically peered over the border but felt safe and secure as domestic banks and the Harper Conservatives assured Canucks that this couldn't happen here. But wait, it can -- and it has.
A Globe and Mail investigation into more than 10,000 foreclosure proceedings has uncovered a burgeoning subprime mortgage problem that many, including Prime Minister Stephen Harper, have insisted does not exist in Canada.
Data obtained from both the governments of British Columbia and Alberta, as well as from two private companies that specialize in tracking foreclosure proceedings, show that lenders are foreclosing on the homes of overextended borrowers at an alarming pace. Even more startling is that more than half the foreclosures in 2008 were initiated by a mish-mash of subprime lenders who targeted riskier borrowers with tarnished credit histories. The numbers tell a story of thousands of homeowners who borrowed more than they could afford from lenders who lent too readily.
And the secret part? In the U.S., foreclosure statistics are readily known as part of the measurement of economic health. Not so in Canada.
Unlike the United States, where foreclosure statistics are routinely published because they are a key barometer of economic health, detailed numbers in Canada are hard to come by. Alberta and British Columbia are two provinces where private companies collect the data from the courts, where it costs about $10 to view a single file. In Ontario, mortgages in default are usually resolved through a process known as power-of-sale, which has effectively removed the issue from the courts and shielded the scope of the problem.
Since the subprime mortgage meltdown in the United States, Canadian leaders have assured the public that a similar tidal wave of foreclosures can't hit here. They have cited the prudence and market dominance of Canada's five most prominent banks, the conservatism of Canadian consumers and the tiny, 7-per-cent market share of subprime lenders, which is much lower than their 22-per-cent market share in the United States.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper was still touting the superiority of Canada's banking system and its regulatory regime in a recent speech saying that Canada has "avoided the extreme of the unregulated, or barely regulated, financial and mortgage industries that has caused such grief around the world."
Could be his speech writers and researchers didn't exercise enough due diligence.
“We have a subprime problem in Canada. Lenders dramatically reduced their lending standards in the past five years,” said Andrew Bury, British Columbia's foremost expert in foreclosure law, who has been practising for 29 years. Mr. Bury, who practises with Gowling Lafleur Henderson LLP, said that since August he has had to extend his work day to 15 hours to cope with a caseload that has tripled. Vancouver courts are so overwhelmed with the flood of foreclosure applications that it now takes six weeks to process a written order compared with one day six months ago, he said. “The subprime lenders trashed the market. They were doing loans that no one else would do and people were shaking their heads saying, ‘What are these guys doing?'” The data also revealed that scores of wealthy individuals dabbled in subprime lending at a time when many believed the real estate market was on a never-ending ride. Doctors, lawyers, stockbrokers and former bankers offered high-interest-rate mortgages to debt-laden homeowners, many of whom are now facing foreclosure proceedings.
So perhaps it's time for Canadian governments - federal, provincial and territorial - to take a closer look at our financial institution and lending practices.
The spread of subprime mortgages to Canada is one of the country's most poorly researched and misunderstood economic afflictions. Government agencies don't publish numbers on the scope of high-risk lending. Banks and other mortgage lenders do not disclose details about such loans, known in industry parlance as “non-conforming” loans.