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Are the big banks jumping the gun?

General Angela Calla 29 Apr

The Globe and Mail Published on Thursday, Apr. 29, 2010


Interest rates are rising – we all get that – but it looks like the Big Banks are pushing things a bit with mortgages.


After a pair of increases in the past two weeks, the posted Big Bank five-year fixed mortgage rate now stands at 6.25 per cent. Does that seem high? In fact, it’s just half a percentage point below the average level for the past decade.


We’re supposed to be in the early phase of what could be a long cycle of rate increases. The Bank of Canada hasn’t even started raising its overnight rate, which sets the trend for borrowing costs other than fixed-rate mortgages. The overnight rate could very well start rising June 1 (that’s the central bank’s next rate-setting date), but even then it’s not dead certain that rates will move.


Mortgage rates are linked to bond yields, which have been rising for a while now. But mortgage rates have been moving faster.


Thanks to the always helpful Bank of Canada online interest rate database, we know that the yield for five-year Government of Canada bonds has averaged 4.03 per cent since the beginning of 2000. Five-year Canada bonds had a yield of 3.02 per cent yesterday, which means they’re three-quarters of the way back to their average of the past decade.


The 10-year average for posted five-year fixed-rate mortgages is 6.75 per cent, which means this rate is almost 93 per cent of the way back to its long-term average. There is zero consensus that things have normalized after the financial crisis, but the banks are just about all the way back to pricing mortgages as if they were.


And, no, this “go big or go home” attitude to rates has not been extended to guaranteed investment certificates, which are one source the banks use for the money they lend out as mortgages. The current posted Big Bank five-year GIC rate tops out at 2.1 per cent, or 63 per cent of its 10-year average rate of 3.31 per cent.


John Turner, director of mortgages at Bank of Montreal, said the banks are simply reacting to the rising rate environment in setting borrowing costs for mortgages.


“It’s not about any of us trying to get ahead of things, because the market won’t let us,” he said. “It’s a very competitive market.”


Mr. Turner cited two factors that have driven fixed-rate mortgages lately. One is an effort by the banks to anticipate higher bond yields and avoid repeated increases in mortgage rates. “We don’t like to move rates because it causes dissatisfaction, and it causes disruption in the sales force.”


The other driver of higher mortgage costs is the rising cost of providing interest-rate guarantees for people who are smart enough to lock in a rate as soon as they start looking for a home. Mr. Turner said these costs haven’t been a factor much in recent years because the general trend for interest rates has been downward. Now, with rates on a definite upward path, rate guarantees are a bigger consideration for lenders.


Banks won’t say this out loud, but their own internal business considerations help set mortgage rates as well. Sometimes, this works in favour of borrowers. In February, for example, the banks lowered mortgage rates even as bond yields rose a tick or two. Now, the banks seem to be in a mood to emphasize profits over market share or, as it’s known in bank land, widen spreads between what they charge and what they pay.


“The banks normally do this when interest rates are moving,” said David McVay, a financial services industry consultant with McVay and Associates. “But their retail profits have been pretty strong, and they widened spreads quite well when they put up line-of-credit rates [in 2008-09]. That was a big boost to profits right there.”


Mr. McVay seconded Mr. Turner’s comment about the mortgage marketplace being too competitive for banks to be out of line with their mortgage rates. In fact, there is a huge variation in rates right now that demands some shopping around from homebuyers and people facing renewals.