Canada’s federal housing agency is considering scaling back mortgage underwriting practices to limit excessive borrowing due to the threat of significant declines in real estate prices and rising debt levels.

The combination of higher mortgage debt, declining property prices and increased unemployment is “cause for concern for Canada’s longer-term financial stability,” Evan Siddall, chief executive officer at Canada Mortgage & Housing Corp., said Tuesday in remarks prepared for an appearance before the House of Commons Standing Committee on Finance in Ottawa. One fifth of all mortgages could be in arrears if the country’s economy hasn’t sufficiently recovered, he said.

“If there is an insurance claim, CMHC will be called upon to cover these losses,” Siddall said in the statement. “We are therefore evaluating whether we should change our underwriting policies in light of these market conditions.”

Canada is grappling with a dual shock of shutdowns from the pandemic and collapsing oil prices, and has already shed 3 million jobs since March. The economy probably shrank by 42 per cent annualized in the second quarter, according to the median forecast in a Bloomberg survey.

Siddall said the agency feels the need to avoid exposing young people, as well as taxpayers, to “amplified losses” from falling home values. CMHC forecasts decline in average house prices of nine per cent to 18 per cent over next 12 months, he said.

A first-time home buyer with a five per cent down payment faces potential losses of $45,000 on a $300,000 home that falls in price by 10 per cent, Siddall said. In comparison, a 10 per cent down payment offers more of a cushion against possible losses.

Other highlights from Siddall’s remarks:

  • CMHC estimates 12 per cent of mortgage holders have opted to defer payments so far, a figure that could reach almost 20 per cent by September
  • Canada’s household debt-to-GDP ratio will increase to more than 115 per cent in the second quarter of 2020, and reach 130 per cent by September, due to increased borrowing and GDP declines. Pre-crisis debt-to-GDP was 99 per cent
  • The nation’s debt to disposable income ratio will climb to “well over 200 per cent” through 2021, from 176 per cent now