First on the U.S. Jobs Front
The May employment report was released this morning in the US and it was shockingly weak–indeed, the weakest number in almost 6 years. Nonfarm payroll employment was up only 38,000, well below the market expectation of 160,000. Not only was May incredibly weak, but the March and April job gains were revised down sharply, by 59,000. This represents a dramatic slowdown from last year’s average monthly growth of 229,000.
Economists had expected the May job gain to be depressed by the Verizon strike and information and telecommunications jobs were down by 34,000, but employment declines were also posted in manufacturing, construction and mining.
The average workweek was unchanged for all workers and was up slight in manufacturing. A bright spot in the report was worker pay. Average hourly earnings rose by 0.2 per cent in May after a 0.4 percent gain in April that was a bit stronger than initially reported. Worker pay increased 2.5 percent over the 12 months ended in May.
In addition, 458,000 people left the workforce last month, taking the labour force participation rate down to 62.6 per cent. In consequence, the unemployment rate fell by 0.3 percentage points to 4.7 per cent, the lowest level since November 2007. The drop in the jobless rate is nothing to cheer about since it was caused by Americans leaving the labour force.
Dismal employment gains reduce the chances of a pronounced upturn in household spending and economic growth from the disappointing first quarter pace. This takes a Federal Reserve rate hike off the table for June. Job growth has slowed in concert with weaker corporate profits and a weak global economy.
The Canadian dollar rose in the wake of this report as the US dollar plunged. Clearly, the weakness in the US is not good news for Canada as 77 per cent of Canadian exports go to the US. The Bank of Canada is counting on the export sector to pick up the slack from the hammered oil sector.
Red-Hot Housing Continues in May in Toronto and Vancouver
The release of the May data from the Real Estate Boards in Vancouver and Toronto show a continued record surge in sales and house prices. Both markets and their surrounding regions have posted enormously frothy gains, which appear to be accelerating. How much of the activity is attributable to foreign buying is unknown, but there is evidence that capital inflows to housing markets from China have risen in the past year.
Housing affordability is plunging in both regions and there has been a rising number of voices calling for government action of some sort. Some have suggest an increase in the minimum downpayment, tightening credit conditions or a rise in the cost of CMHC mortgage insurance–all of which would hurt first-time home buyers the most, exacerbating affordability. As well, the idea of action to slow foreign buying–such as, for example, a luxury tax–has also been floated.
This is a very tricky issue. The strength in housing (in these two regions) has been a key underpinning to economic growth this cycle. As well, 70 per cent of Canadian households own their own homes and home equity is for most people the largest component of household wealth, so the government is leery about triggering a collapse in housing. Nonetheless, housing growth this strong does not usually end well.
In Vancouver, the Multiple Listing Service reported unprecedented growth in home sales and prices. Last month’s sales were 35.3 percent above the 10-year sales average for May and ranks as the highest sales total on record for that month. While demand is very hot, the total number of listings in Metro Vancouver has declined 37.3 per cent from a year ago, helping to explain some of the upward pressure on price. Home prices in Greater Vancouver are up a stunning 48.3 per cent in the past three years and the one-year change has been close to 30 per cent. The numbers are similar for the Lower Mainland as a whole. The price gains are even larger for single family detached homes as supply is very limited.
In Toronto, the story is much the same, although the activity and price increases are slightly less frenzied, which isn’t saying much as multiple offers and paid prices well over asking has become increasingly common. The Toronto Real Estate Board reported a new record month for May sales, up 10.6 per cent from a year ago as the number of new listings was down 6.4 per cent. The excess demand in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) continues to push prices higher and, in some cases, to create panic buying.
The MLS Home Price Index was up 15 per cent year-over-year, with the surge even stronger for detached homes. Gains in the 905 area (the suburbs and exurbs of Toronto) outpaced those in the 416 area (Toronto proper), likely reflecting the supply and affordability issue. The average price of a detached home in the 416 area is now $1.3 million compared to $892,000 in 905. Condo prices are considerably cheaper at an average price of $443,000 in Toronto and $347,000 in the burbs–still beyond the reach of many first-time homebuyers. Even move-up buyers are choosing to renovate their existing homes because they cannot afford to pay the prices for larger properties. Downsizers have an incentive to wait, thinking that price increase will only continue.
This is certainly top-of-the-market thinking, but as we have seen, it can last for a considerable period. Most everyone is predicting a slowdown in the housing markets next year. We better hope so. A soft landing is what we all want as prices cannot go up forever, especially at this pace.