Anyone who has ever tried to reduce their overall personal or household debt knows that doing so, no matter how disciplined one’s approach, can seem like a one step forward, two steps back proposition. It sometimes seems that, just as measurable progress is achieved in one area (an extra payment is made on the mortgage), unexpected costs in another area (a significant car repair bill) push up the level of debt elsewhere (e.g., credit card debt).

That experience is being replicated on a macro level, in the figures for household debt relative to disposable income ratios of Canadian households, as reported by Statistics Canada. Earlier this year, media reports on those statistics were able to include such phrases as “household debt ratio sees biggest drop on record” and “Canada’s household debt burden falls to two-year low”. Those phrases did accurately reflect the statistical information released by Statistics Canada in June of this year. More recently, however, the September StatsCan release led to headlines like “Canadian household debt climbs in second quarter” and “Canada’s household debt back to $1.69 for every dollar of disposable income”.

While it seems that the progress made in reducing household debt in the first quarter of 2018 (as reported in June 2018) has been undone by the latest statistics, there is a small amount of positive news — while the ratio of $1.69 of household debt per dollar of disposable income is clearly very high, it has been higher. In the third quarter of 2017, that ratio hit $1.73.

While the statistics identify the overall quantum of household debt, the composition of that debt and the demographic characteristics of who carries that debt are probably more important, from the point of view of both individuals and the overall economy.

First, the vast majority of debt held by Canadians and Canadian households is mortgage debt – money borrowed to purchase a home. Specifically, of the $2 trillion owed by Canadians, almost 75% is in the form of mortgage debt. Consequently, no matter how much the debt, that debt is secured by an underlying asset – the property – which can, in the worst-case scenario, be sold to satisfy or retire the mortgage debt.

However, absent that worst-case scenario, the day-to-day concern is the ability to keep up with mortgage payments. As pointed out by the Governor of the Bank of Canada in a presentation made earlier this year, “what matters most is the burden of servicing debt relative to income”. Or, in other words, the percentage of household income which is needed to make the required payments of interest and principal. In that respect, the debt service ratio of Canadians has stayed within the 5 to 7% range for about the last quarter century. Canadians have, in effect, been able to carry higher levels of debt relative to income without increasing their debt service costs, because of the lower interest rates which were in place for most of the past decade.

While that is clearly good news, it is very possible that the average debt service ratio will climb in the near future, as the result of several factors. First, most of the debt held by Canadians is in the form of mortgage debt, which is long-term debt. In most cases, a mortgage is the biggest debt Canadian families ever take on, and most mortgages are paid off over at least a 25-year time span. Consequently, the management of mortgage debt in all interest rate environments is a long-term task – absent the sale of the underlying property, paying off mortgage in the short term isn’t a likely scenario. Second, the Bank of Canada has now increased interest rates five times since July 2017 (two of those increases happening in the past four months). The Bank Rate is now more than double what is was in May 2017, and each increase in that rate has been reflected in higher borrowing costs, including higher mortgage interest rates. It’s likely, however, that most mortgage holders have not yet felt the impact of those increased rates. Most mortgages are fixed-term mortgages (meaning that the rate of interest stays the same throughout the mortgage term, regardless of any increase or decrease in interest rates which take place during that time period). And the majority of the fixed-term mortgages taken out have a five-year term. Consequently, homeowners who took out a five-year fixed term mortgage prior to July 2017 have not felt the effects of the five recent interest rate hikes. However, when their current mortgage comes up for renewal, the rate of interest which they will be paying will certainly be higher than their current rate and, consequently, the cost of servicing that debt will take a bigger chunk of their household income. The concern is that that such increases in those debt servicing costs may be not be manageable and, in the worst-case scenario, could lead to an increase in mortgage default rates.

Finally, it is important to note that all these figures represent an average of all Canadian households, and to remember that that average is made up of both households that have zero debt and those that are seriously over-leveraged. According to Bank of Canada figures, about 8% of indebted households owe 350% or more of their gross income, representing a bit more than 20% of total household debt. In other words, the degree of financial risk facing Canadian households is very much an individual calculation. Figures announcing the average rate of household debt to income ratios or debt servicing ratios, or the announcement of another increase in interest rates by the Bank of Canada shouldn’t be cause for either individual relief or despair. Rather, they should prompt a review of one’s own person debt and financial circumstances to determine whether those circumstances, and particularly the extent to which they will be impacted by future interest rate increases, is cause for concern. If so, it’s time to take steps to mitigate that future risk, before a debt problem becomes a debt crisis.

The information presented is only of a general nature, may omit many details and special rules, is current only as of its published date, and accordingly cannot be regarded as legal or tax advice. Please contact our office for more information on this subject and how it pertains to your specific tax or financial situation.