December 17, 2008 / 8:43 PM / in 9 years

Households to face "trying" 2009: Bank of Canada

TORONTO (Reuters) - Bank of Canada Governor Mark Carney said on Wednesday that 2009 would be difficult for many Canadians but he cautioned against overplaying the “extreme scenario” of a possible collapse in household incomes.

<p>Bank of Canada Governor Mark Carney speaks to the business community in Toronto December 17, 2008. Carney said on Wednesday that 2009 would be a challenge for many Canadians but he cautioned against overplaying the "extreme scenario" of a possible collapse in household income. REUTERS/Mark Blinch</p>

“Partly as a consequence of financial instability, next year will be a trying one for many Canadians,” he said in a speech. “While the Canadian household sector remains relatively healthy, its resilience will be tested during the recession.”

But Carney said measures taken in Canada and around the world were working their way through the system and would pull the economy out of the “full-blown financial crisis” it is in.

“Policy-makers have had to respond with bold measures. These will work, although it will take time for confidence to return and for capital to flow once again.”

The focus on the Canadian central bank was sharper on Wednesday after the U.S. Federal Reserve lowered its benchmark rate to near zero on Tuesday.

The Bank of Canada has obviously studied nonconventional measures other than rate cuts, Carney said. The bank’s overnight target rate is at 1.50 percent so it still has a little room left for cuts.

“We continue to do contingency plans at the bank,” he told a business audience in Toronto. “We’re very up to speed on scenarios ... but it’s premature to talk about that.”

Carney dished out implicit criticism of media coverage last week of a Bank of Canada report on the possibility of problems in the mortgage and household sectors.

He referred to one scenario the bank had examined in which nominal household income would fall by 2 percent a year for six quarters and Canada’s banks would incur significant losses.

“However, it is important not to overplay this scenario, since it actually illustrates the strength of our system,” he said.

Carney said annual growth in nominal income had never been negative during any quarter for at least 37 years, and Canada’s banks would still have strong capital ratios.

“There are a number of reasons why the risk posed by household balance sheets is significantly lower in Canada than elsewhere, not the least of which is Canada’s more conservative lending culture,” he said.

Subprime mortgages account for less than 5 percent of mortgage lending, one third the U.S. level. And because Canada requires insurance on mortgages with small downpayments and Canada Mortgage Bonds carry a sovereign guarantee, there has been no negative feedback loop between the housing market and the financial sector, he said.

Though households’ debt-to-income ratio was at a record 140 percent, the debt-service ratio had declined to below the historical average because of lower borrowing costs, and this gives “a measure of assurance that most households can comfortably manage their debts,” Carney said.

Still, the bank will closely monitor the risk posed by household balance sheets and consider the possibility that some may be more sensitive to shocks to their income or wealth.

He said Canadian banks are in such a good position that they can expand lending faster than their international peers. Asked by a member of the audience if the Bank of Canada might take equity stakes in chartered banks -- as in the United States -- he said there was “no interest”.

Credit conditions in Canada continue to be difficult at the moment, he said, but he added that “credit, on an aggregate level, is still growing” and that “our banks are well-capitalized.”

Additional reporting by Randall Palmer; editing by Rob Wilson

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