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Canada’s household debt ratio relatively steady, net worth improves

Debt as a proportion of household disposable income slight drop for the third quarter in a row
Statistics Canada says seasonally-adjusted household credit market debt as a proportion of household disposable income dropped for the third quarter in row recently. A Canadian dollar coin is pictured in Vancouver on Wednesday, May 29, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

Statistics Canada says households owed $1.79 in credit market debt on average for every dollar of disposable income in the fourth quarter.

The federal agency said Wednesday that seasonally adjusted household credit market debt as a proportion of household disposable income fell for the third quarter in a row.

The figure dipped to 178.7 per cent in the fourth quarter from 179.2 per cent in the third quarter, a change the agency attributed to disposable income outpacing growth in credit market debt because of relatively slow mortgage borrowing in the fourth quarter.

However, the household debt service ratio, which measures interest and principal as a share of disposable income, was little changed in the fourth quarter as payments rose in line with disposable incomes, noted Shelly Kaushik, an economist with BMO Capital Markets. It remains historically elevated and is poised to rise in the coming quarters, she said.

“Household debt ratios improved in the fourth quarter as elevated rates kept a damper on demand for mortgage loans,” she said in a note to investors.

“However, the latter is expected to rebound when rates begin to fall in the middle of 2024.”

Before then, Kaushik expects elevated debt service ratios to continue to be a headwind for household spending and broader economic activity.

“Keep an eye on government debt levels in the coming quarters, which look to rise further as larger borrowing plans are unveiled across the country this budget season,” she said.

StatCan’s Wednesday release also noted households were wealthier in the fourth quarter.

The agency said total household net worth increased almost two per cent to $16.4 trillion, driven largely by strength in financial markets as both bonds and equities rallied.

Despite the boost, there are still disparities, said Maria Solovieva, an economist with TD.

She saw a January uptick in consumer insolvencies, leading her to believe that some families are unable to meet their financial obligations.

But looking ahead, Solovieva expects another quarter of growth in household net worth.

“First, home prices have been moving higher in the last three months, recovering from last year’s pullback as housing activity snapped back on easier financial conditions and lower mortgage rates,” she said in a note to investors.

Equities have also increased, especially in the U.S., she noted.

“Assuming March doesn’t break the trend, we expect Q1 2024 to deliver another quarter of wealth gains, marginally supporting consumer spending,’ she said.

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