Mortgage rates – how low they can go?

Four times in the past four years, Flaherty has tightened mortgage insurance rules, each time making it a little more difficult to get home financing. And although household debt continues to hit new record highs—reaching 165% of disposable income by the end of last year—Flaherty has succeeded in slowing housing activity in Canada. But that comes at the expense of the mortgage market, which is the largest of the banks’ lending businesses. Mortgages in the banking sector are currently growing at about 6% a year—half of the pre-recession rate of growth. “The competition between institutions is so fierce that they really have no choice but to compete by offering as low a rate as they possibly can,”  says John Andrew, a real estate professor at Queen’s University.

Lenders still make money on low-rate mortgages. Their profit margins are roughly measured by the difference between mortgage rates and the banks’ own costs of borrowing, which is approximated by the Bank of Canada’s five-year benchmark bond rate—about 1.2%. Most of the money the banking sector lends out is provided by retail deposits, supplemented by borrowing on the “wholesale” market. The minimum spread at which a bank would be willing to offer five-year mortgages is about 140 basis points, says Ohad Lederer, a financial services analyst at Veritas Investment Research. That would put a floor on five-year mortgage rates of about 2.6%—assuming the five-year bond rate doesn’t fall any further. Variable or shorter-term mortgages are already available for even less.

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