Mortgage rates are rising in Canada despite coronavirus-relief cuts

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Canada's mortgage rates are creeping up — even though the country's central bank has slashed borrowing costs to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.

That's due to the "enormous pressure" Canadian banks face amid disruptions caused by the outbreak, said Sherry Cooper, chief economist at Dominion Lending Centres Inc.

"The costs of funds for banks is skyrocketing and bank earnings are plunging," Cooper said Monday in a phone interview. "Every single business they have ever loaned to is subject to a massive decline in revenues, and therefore their own revenues are going down because nobody is taking out new business with banks except to extend debt."

The Bank of Canada has cut its overnight interest rate three times this month, bringing the benchmark to 0.25%. The large Canadian banks matched those moves by cutting their prime rates, which influence borrowing rates for variable mortgages and credit lines, to 2.45% from 3.95% at the start of the month.

As those rates have dropped, banks have been eliminating discounts off prime on variable mortgages. At the start of the month, qualified borrowers could get a rate of prime minus 1% from HSBC Canada, for example, while Canada's large domestic lenders were also offering "prime minus" deals as well.

But those discounts have shrunk by 75 to 85 basis points, said Rob McLister, founder of mortgage comparison website RateSpy.com.

Typical five-year fixed rates at also rising. Rates at large Canadian bank are now at 2.99% to 3.04% versus around 2.49% to 2.59% at the end of February, McLister said.

"The big banks are leading the charge higher here, on both the fixed side and the variable side," he said. Preferred borrowers can still get some prime minus deals at big banks, but they're more like prime minus 10 or 15 basis points.

McLister said the rising cost of short-term funding, used for variable mortgages, explains the jump. Spreads are wide, fewer people want to lend big banks money at preferable pricing, so that gets passed through to the borrower, McLister said.

Fixed-rate mortgages, which are tied more to swings in the bond market, are also creeping up after Canadian bond yields hit record lows earlier in the month, added Cooper.

"The banks just can't afford to price their loans at what are de minimis bond yield levels," Cooper said.

She expects banks to start charging prime plus a premium for variable loans, as well as higher rates for fixed mortgages than those seen earlier in the year.

"I believe mortgage rates will trend around current levels," Cooper said. "I don't think interest rates in general are going to be a lot higher in the next year."

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