Monday, July 19, 2010

Oh, Dear, Canada!

By Eric Jackson
RealMoney Contributor

7/19/2010 1:45 PM EDT
Click here for more stories by Eric Jackson

Canada's economy has been the subject of many glowing reviews by American analysts over the last 18 months. In comparison with the U.S., the Canadians seem to have a great thing going. Unemployment is 7.9% versus 9.5% in the U.S. There has been no major failure of a Canadian bank. The country's debt-to-GDP ratio is only 70% versus more than 90% in the U.S.

The Canadian housing market has also shown remarkable resilience and even strength. Home prices, although they declined in the wake of the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy, have now recouped all their losses and are higher than they were prior to September 2008.

When the U.S. economy drove into the ditch in the fall of 2008, the Canadian government got rightly scared, as Canada's economy has often been the tail on the U.S. dog, manufacturing lots of American cars, as well as shipping oil, gas and lumber across the border. (Most Americans don't know that Canada is the largest exporter of oil to the US, far ahead of any Middle Eastern country.) The Canadian dollar -- used by traders as a proxy for a bullish bet on commodities -- went from a pre-crisis high of near parity with the U.S. dollar to 78 cents by October 2008.

The Canadian government responded to the financial crisis in much the same manner as the U.S. -- a similar level of stimulus dollars on a GDP basis (remember that Canada is 10% the size of the US economy) and a similar level of government purchases of mortgages off the balance sheets of banks on a GDP basis. Interest rates plummeted and mortgages became a lot cheaper.

In contrast to the US, Canada's housing market had not been as overheated for as long. While most U.S. house prices ramped up starting in 2002, when rates dropped after 9/11, in Canada, most housing prices didn't really start to appreciate to U.S.-type levels until 2006. Therefore, even though the Canadian housing market did freeze up after Lehman, by May 2009, with low rates and a comparatively better local economy, most Canadians started to jump back into the housing market with both feet -- especially in the two hottest markets of Vancouver and Toronto. Property bidding wars in Canada became common between May 2009 and as late as April 2010.


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