Primer #2: Is there a housing bubble?

Hello again

In our last primer we looked at how money is created and destroyed in our fractional reserve banking system.  We examined the implications of this process on inflation (which buoys asset prices like real estate) and deflation (which crushes asset prices).

In that primer I suggested that one of the main catalysts for a contraction in the money supply would be a decline in real estate prices which become self-feeding.  This will dampen demand for mortgages and home equity lines of credit, the two largest generators of bank-created money, and will also cause people to save and pay off their debts as they no longer feel as wealthy.  This has the effect of 1)  Shrinking the aggregate money supply, and 2) Slowing the velocity of money.  In this primer we will examine the question of how fairly valued Canadian real estate really is.  We will use quantitative measures that are universally accepted to examine this question, rather than the qualitative fluff that is rampant in most discussions of real estate values (example: “they’re not making any more land”, “real estate only goes up”, “buy now or be priced out forever”, bla bla bla)

Now it is important at the outset to recognize that real estate is priced based on local conditions.  Some areas will definitely be hit harder in a real estate correction than others.  However, there are only a handful of communities in all of Canada that are at or near their historic norm when it comes to real estate prices (as measured by the quantitative factors we will examine shortly).  Furthermore, in a period of persistent deflation, all assets are ravaged, including those that are ‘fairly’ valued.  So it is of particular concern that we are entering a period of deflation with such widespread overvaluation.  So, for the sake of having a meaningful discussion of the state of Canadian real estate in GENERAL, I have used data provided for the Canadian market as a whole.

Let’s first start with the definition of a bubble.  While there are lots of definitions, the easiest way to think of an asset bubble is as follows:  An asset bubble exists when the prices of assets are over-inflated relative to historic norms, as measured by widely accepted fundamentals.  Bubbles are a product of mass psychology (the topic of our next primer). They occurs when people flock to a particular asset class, such as real estate creating excess demand.

I know I referenced Chris Martenson in my last primer, and I don’t usually borrow too heavily from any source, but he does an excellent job of explaining asset bubbles in a straightforward manner in this chapter of his Crash Course.

So let’s dive in.  There are three metrics that are commonly referenced with regards to guaging the relative value of real estate:  affordability (usually measured as the percentage of the average income needed to carry the average house), price-to-income (average price divided by average family income), and price-to-rent (the value of a house divided by the annual rental income that the house would generate).

Any discussion of the relative value of real estate is meaningless without referencing one of these three metrics.  Otherwise, we revert to anecdotes, second-hand stories, and the generally accepted wisdom of our culture.  None of which prove anything.

So, let’s take a hard look at these three metrics to try to determine just how fairly valued real estate is.  If anyone would like to post a rebuttal to this post, please refute these facts with facts of your own rather than anecdotes.

Let’s start with affordability.  This one is misleading in some ways.  Record-low interest rates have kept affordability at what would seem to be a reasonable level.  In May, RBC released a study in which they concluded that affordability was quickly eroding due to house price appreciation.

Affordability is well above historic norms, and that is with record low interest rates.   Earlier in 2010, we hit new highs in house prices, despite the facts that income growth has been slightly negative in the past couple years and has been unchanged over the past decade when adjusted for inflation.  Should mortgage rates normalize, which they must at some point, you will see affordability rapidly detereorate past the 2008 lows.  Any rational person would conclude that affordability has to detereorate now that there are new mortgage rules tightening lending standards, and higher interest rates around the corner.  Additionally, the Canadian Association of Accredited Mortgage Professionals has recently released a report indicating that 375,000 households are reporting that their ability to make mortgage payments is already an issue.  This is with RECORD LOW interest rates!  Think about it for a moment!

On to the price-to-income ratio.  This one is perhaps most important, as you obviously need a higher income to support the increased costs of real estate.  I’ll let the second graph at the bottom do the talking on this one (thanks to David Rosenber at Gluskin Sheff for this one)

Note that any time you pass the one standard deviation from the mean, there is always a reversion to the opposite.  We are currently well above one standard deviation from historic norms.  So, there are only two possible options here:  Either house prices decline to a level where incomes can support them, or house prices remain level for a period of time while incomes catch up.  I think mass psychology (it’ll make sense after the next primer) and the state of the economy in general make the second option quite remote.

Now let’s consider the price-to-rent ratio.  This one is akin to the popular price-earnings multiple used to value stocks.  Essentially, it is a quick measure of whether or not it makes sense to rent a house or buy the equivalent house.  In this one, the graph is shocking.

As you can see, we are dealing with a two standard deviation event.   Based on rents, homes are 60% above their long term intrinsic value.  Truly shocking!
Finally, let’s look at home ownership rates.  They are at historic highs (now breaching the 70% level, above the level the US experienced prior to its crash).  You need a steady supply of new home buyers to keep the real estate game going.  So it begs the question of who will be the new buyers.  You may be prone to say that immigration will be our short-term salvation.  I would beg to differ.  Net household formation in Canada is running at 175K per annum. That includes imigration and ‘organic’ household formation. Currently housiung starts are running at +200k per annum. It’s not hard to see that there is oversupply in the pipeline for the near-term future.

You’ll note that all three of these valuations have concrete upper boundaries.  You cannot have price-to-income ratios increase forever.  Clearly.  And you can`t have price-to-rent increase forever, or people will stop buying.  Clearly.  Affordability cannot detereorate to the point that people require 80% of their net pay to service the costs associated with the average home.  Clearly.  So consider the implications.  Weigh them out.  Then, for the bulls out there, please formulate a rational response that explains why real estate will do anything but decline over the next few years.  I don`t expect any responses.

As always, don’t follow the crowds.  The danger of ‘crowd thinking’ will be abundantly clear after the next primer.  Think for yourself.  You’ll do fine!

Cheers and blessings,



Added:  For updated stats as of January, 2011, check out this post-

Housing: A bug in search of a windshield


Added #2:  This primer is now in video form

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31 Responses to Primer #2: Is there a housing bubble?

  1. vreaa says:


    I like your blog, many thanks for the posts thus far, & we look forward to seeing your commentary over time.

    The ‘Daily Roundup’ idea is excellent and brave; a daily-updated concentrated source for links to articles particularly pertinent to Canadian markets and citizens. It’s a fair amount of work for you as the blogger, but if you really are able to do it daily, it could become a ‘go-to’ portal.
    An intense version of this in the US is ‘’ where the ‘fallstreet feed’ lists links relevant to the markets. Best RE example is likely

    All the best,
    (vancouver real estate anecdote archivist)

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  3. Bruce Joseph says:

    Hey Ben great article. Great advice.
    Be contrarian. Use your head. Do not follow the crowd or the hype.
    Buy on fundamentals not on blissful emotional hope of future price valuation.
    Looking forward to the next post.
    I feel the masses downfall is their inability to change their outfit for a different season hence crying when things change instead of seizing the opportunities before them.
    The best time to buy will be after this correction when the mood is ultra low on real estate.

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  7. coolcanuck says:

    Great set of posts – nice to see some thoughtful analysis.

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  16. joe says:

    Canadian housing market summed up just like that…
    There is a vast difference between the Western housing markets (BC, Alberta and Saskatchewan) and that of Ontario. Ontario is clearly the worst performing economy in Canada. The Western housing markets have a much greater rate of high paying job creation within their economies. Ontario doesn’t have that benefit. The most dominant hiring force in Ontario from 2000 to 2010 was the Ontario Government which created close to 200,ooo jobs during those years. (However Ontario is running a $30billion deficit these days). If the housing market is going to implode anywhere it will be Ontario. However the power of sale laws are much different than the US and there is also the CMHC which is a friendly to the consumer government entity insuring the mortgages. My prediction is that the housing market in Western Canada will remain hot and the Ontario market will contract but not crash.

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  30. Kyle says:

    Someone linked to your articles and I’ve found them pretty good so far, but I had an issue with the following line:

    “Any rational person would conclude that affordability has to detereorate now that there are new mortgage rules tightening lending standards, and higher interest rates around the corner. ”

    Wouldn’t tightening lending standards mean there are going to be fewer people who qualify for mortgages, so demand for buying real estate will drop, and prices will drop, thereby improving affordability?

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