Canada’s five largest banks would pass the U.S. government stress test brilliantly. They were profitable in the last quarter of 2008, are well capitalized now, and have had no problems raising additional private capital. On average only 7% of their mortgage portfolios consisted of subprime loans (versus 20% in the U.S.). And no major Canadian bank has required direct government infusions of capital.
Advocates of increased regulation of U.S. financial markets have concluded that more stringent rules governing leverage and capital ratios account for Canada’s impressive performance. They champion such measures here. In a Toronto speech earlier this year about reforming the U.S. banking system, former Fed chairman and Obama administration adviser Paul Volcker said the model he is considering “looks more like the Canadian system than it does the American system.”
Nevertheless, Canadian banks operate in a very different context. Copying the Canadian banking system in this country, without understanding how its banking and housing sectors operate, would be a mistake.
Start with the housing sector. Canadian banks are not compelled by laws such as our Community Reinvestment Act to lend to less creditworthy borrowers. Nor does Canada have agencies like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac promoting “affordable housing” through guarantees or purchases of high-risk and securitized loans. With fewer incentives to sell off their mortgage loans, Canadian banks held a larger share of them on their balance sheets. Bank-held mortgages tend to perform more soundly than securitized ones.
In the U.S., Federal Housing Administration programs allowed mortgages with only a 3% down payment, while the Federal Home Loan Bank provided multiple subsidies to finance borrowing. In Canada, if a down payment is less than 20% of the value of a home, the mortgage holder must purchase mortgage insurance. Mortgage interest is not tax deductible.
The differences do not end there. A homeowner in the U.S. can simply walk away from his loan if the balance on his mortgage exceeds the value of his house. The lender has no recourse except to take the house in satisfaction of the debt. Canadian mortgage holders are held strictly responsible for their home loans and banks can launch claims against their other assets.
And yet Canada’s homeownership rate equals that in the U.S. (Both fluctuate, in the mid to high 60% range.)
For obvious political reasons, debate in Washington spotlights the need for future financial regulation while glossing over the role of government housing and other regulatory policies in the current crisis. This is dangerous: Without a thorough review of relevant government housing policies, laws and regulations, layering new reforms on top of our current system may only set the stage for another housing crisis in the future.
In response to the current crisis the Canadian government has thus far bought about $55 billion (Canadian) of insured loans from financial institutions (a substantial sum, given that Canada’s economy is one-tenth the size of the U.S. economy). It has also played a central role supporting the availability of credit and removing potentially distressed assets from bank balance sheets. Still, these interventions have not arrested a substantial slump in Canadian GDP. Last week the Bank of Canada announced that first quarter 2009 GDP had fallen 7.3%. Bank of Canada Governor Mark Carney (Canada’s Ben Bernanke) explained the sharp slowdown in growth: “[I]f we had to boil it down to one issue, it is the slowness with which other G-7 countries have dealt with the problems in their banks.”
When it comes to comparing the track record of the U.S. and Canadian banking systems, it is worth noting that Canada’s regulations did not prohibit the sale or purchase of asset-backed securities. Early in this decade, Canada’s Toronto-Dominion bank was among the world’s top 10 holders of securitized assets. The decision to exit these products four to five years ago, Toronto-Dominion’s CEO Ed Clarke told me, was simple: “They became too complex. If I cannot hold them for my mother-in-law, I cannot hold them for my clients.” No regulator can compete with this standard.
Tighter leverage limits in Canada may have dimmed the incentives for its banks to pursue securitization as brashly as their American counterparts. But regulations cannot take all the credit. Even with leverage ratios held on average at 18 to 1 (versus 26 to 1 for U.S. commercial banks and up to 40 to 1 for U.S. investment banks), Canadian banks would not be as healthy as they are had they not disposed of their more problematic securitized assets four to five years ago. Nothing in Canada’s regulations banned risk-taking. Good, prudent management prevented excess.
Those who blame financial deregulation for the breakdown of U.S. markets should note that Canada shed its version of Glass-Steagall more than 20 years ago. Major banks thereafter rapidly bought and absorbed investment banks.
At that time, Canada established the Office of the Superintendent of Financial Institutions (OSFI) to provide common, consistent and more centralized regulation for federally regulated banks, insurance companies and pension funds. To this day OSFI is almost obsessively concerned with risk management, leaving social and economic objectives, such as access to affordable housing and diversity, to institutions better-suited to attain those goals.
Those desirous of importing Canadian banking regulations to the U.S. should first delve more deeply into the actual practices of our northern neighbor’s housing and financial system. Choosing selectively often leads to choosing poorly.