Canadians of all stripes were blindsided on June 4, when the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation suddenly revised certain key underwriting guidelines. The story got a little more interesting on Monday, when CMHC’s competitors in the mortgage insurance space, Genworth Canada and Canada Guaranty, both announced they would not be following suit.
"Genworth Canada believes that its risk management framework, its dynamic underwriting policies and processes and its ongoing monitoring of conditions and market developments allow it to prudently adjudicate and manage its mortgage insurance exposure, including its exposure to this segment of borrowers with lower credit scores or higher debt service ratios," said Stuart Levings, Genworth Canada’s president and CEO.
In an online statement, Canada Guaranty said “[O]ur underwriting policies are consistently updated to reflect evolving economic environments and emerging mortgage default patterns. This philosophy has resulted in the lowest loss ratio in the industry.” The statement went on to question the logic of CMHC’s lowering of debt servicing ratios, arguing they are not a “significant predictor of mortgage defaults.”
There tends to be a lot of static whenever CMHC makes an announcement; this time will be no different, especially among Canadians who may not be familiar with the intricacies of the mortgage insurance space. That would be almost all of them.
“First-time homebuyers don’t really know who Genworth is, or who Canada Guaranty is,” says Centum FairTrust’s Jimmy Hansra. “The majority of them only know CMHC.”
Many of these buyers, once the only mortgage insurance company they’ve ever heard of tells them they’re ineligible, are going to think they’ve been shut out of the market completely. They’ve never been taught that most lenders work with all three companies, or that credit unions and even behemoths like Scotiabank regularly work with Genworth or Canada Guaranty.
Hansra says CMHC’s tighter lending guidelines may simply drive more business toward its competitors, particularly if they are able to reach first-time buyers with the message that their homebuying window of opportunity hasn’t been nailed shut.
While there may be some short-term confusion among headline-gobblers following the divergence of policies at CMHC, Genworth and Canada Guaranty, one thing is clear: The added competition should benefit everyone.
“It’s great for borrowers. It’s great for brokers, too. CMHC has programs that Genworth doesn’t have, and Genworth has specific mortgage programs that CMHC doesn’t have. Canada Guarantee is a nice little niche mix in there, too,” Hansra says.
“When you have good people like that out in the market, it definitely helps the consumer, and it helps the broker because there’s more choice. You always want your clients and your lenders to have more choice.”
Some still baffled by CMHC’s underwriting changes
CMHC’s underwriting changes haven’t drawn much support, a less than shocking development considering they are expected to decrease spending power by 11 or 12 percent. CMHC’s decision to slow homebuying seems in direct opposition to federal, provincial and central bank policies meant to increase liquidity as a means of nurturing Canada’s economic rebound from COVID-19.
“How else does [CMHC CEO Evan Siddall] expect the economy to get humming along again?” wonders Hansra. “You’re going to handcuff the real estate market, which tends to account for a large percentage of your GDP.”
Leor Margulies of Robins Appleby Barristers and Solicitors, who deals with a range of Schedule 1 banks, private and alternative lenders, was slightly more incensed.
“Why now?” Margulies asks. “People are suffering now, so let’s make it even more difficult? Are people buying houses like crazy right now?”
For Margulies, blame for the potential damage CMHC’s recent moves will inflict on first-time buyers belongs to Siddall himself, who Margulies sees as being overly paranoid of a Canadian housing crash.
“It’s this view that real estate is bad,” he says. “‘If we don’t put a lid on it – and squeeze the lid down – there’s going to be an explosion. People will take on too much debt and it’s going to be 2007 in the U.S.’ It’s ridiculous. It’s never happened before. It didn’t happen in 2008 here. It didn’t happen here 1990 to 1995.”
“[Siddall’s] said some terrible things,” Margulies goes on. “And he continues to say terrible things. He wants to ratchet this industry down. He sees it as a real threat to the economy.”
In Hansra’s eyes, Siddall may have tipped his hand on May 19, when he first told Canadians that CMHC is expecting a decline in average home prices of up to 18 percent, an estimate few have echoed.
“CMHC needed to justify why they came out of the blue, without any actual facts or hard figures, and said home prices are going to drop by nine to eighteen percent,” he says. “In my opinion, they needed some validation. ‘Let’s go out in the market and say this is going to happen, and then this gives us an excuse to change our mortgage underwriting guidelines.’ That’s my take on it.”
The controversial new guidelines – and their arrival in the midst of a global pandemic – were enough to break a long-standing habit of Genworth and Canada Guaranty following CMHC’s underwriting path. The break is largely one of philosophy: Do you try to administer a tailored underwriting process that attempts to take into consideration each borrower’s unique circumstances, or do you make those borrowers, as diverse as they and their circumstances are, follow a single standard that will inevitably cause many of them to suffer through no fault of their own?
“It’s really taking away the common sense of lending,” Hansra says of CMHC’s sledgehammer approach. “And it’s going out the door because CMHC has a fear that the real estate market is going to go down by nine to eighteen percent.”