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Market News - Canadians Spend the Most Servicing Debt - Highest in the G7

Article and Photo courtesy

Canadian households devote much more of their paychecks than their American counterparts. Actually, this is more of a global thing. Canada’s household debt service ratio (DSR) is manageable, but far from normal. An addiction to cheap credit and expensive housing  has led to an epic borrowing spree. Households in the country now devote more of their income to paying off debt than any other country in the G7. Not by a little either — over 50% higher than any of its advanced economy peers.

Household Debt Service Ratios

The household debt service ratio (DSR) is the percent of disposable income used to pay for debt. Disposable income is what’s left over after mandatory transfers, like taxes. The higher the ratio, the more income is used to keep debt in good standing. The lower the ratio, the less income is used. Not at all rocket science, but we’ll be dealing with high flying numbers in a bit.
What’s less obvious is why high debt service ratios are bad. Lenders and members of state-leadership often say it’s not a big deal, as long as they can make the payments. A household’s ability to repay debt is only part of the issue though. The bigger one is the long term impact to the economy.
Simply put, debt is future income used today. People pull forward their consumption, and then pay for it plus interest. In the short run, it’s great for the economy. You’re not just getting what people can buy today, but the economy also enjoys their future income now. The issue is, that person needs to devote a regular stream of income to pay it off. Your human capital stock now has to cut back on spending in other parts of the economy. Plus interest.
Every point spent on maintaining debt is a point diverted from other areas of the economy. This leads to slower long-term economic growth, since less income is circulated locally. Poorly managed economies often double down, and try to get people to borrow more. Pulling more consumption forward works, until it no longer does.
When that day finally comes, you have people with bills to pay, and an anemic economy. Now try dealing with households that need to pay bills with low economic growth. It usually requires more debt, and going further down the hole. It’s not a pretty sight, and politicians often kick the can down the road until a systemic failure occurs.

Canadian Households Spend 12% Of Income Servicing Debt

Canadian households no longer devote record income to servicing their debts. Unfortunately, it’s temporary due to the way numbers are crunched. The DSR is 12.6% for Q3 2020, down 7.4% compared to the same quarter a year before. It’s the lowest ratio since 2016, but this is largely due to the pandemic. 
During the pandemic, Canada’s emergency benefits (e.g. CERB, etc.) replaced 2x income lost. This resulted in a temporary boost to disposable income, pushing the indicator lower. As the benefits fade, or qualifications tighten, the ratio will pop higher. The number reported by the country’s local statistics agency came in at 13.6% for Q4 2020. Q4 will be the first quarter where pandemic benefits saw criteria tighten. Not by much though.

Canadians Use 65% More Income To Carry Debt Than Americans

Canada’s DSR might only be mistaken for good, if it’s not contrasted with any other country. The US household DSR is 7.6% for Q3 2020, down 3.8% from the previous year. Canadians spend 65.8% more disposable income servicing debt than Americans. That’s a lot of future consumption borrowed to pump short-term economic growth in Canada.

Canadians Devote The Most Income To Debt Servicing In The G7

Canada actually devotes more income to servicing debt than any other G7 country. The G7 average for DSR is 7.66% in Q3 2020, down 1.11% from the year before. On average, Canadians use 64.6% more income than their peers to maintain their debt loads. Even the G7 households with the second highest DSR, the UK at 8.9%, use 29.4% less income. Canadians also devote almost 3x the income of the lowest country — Italy. It’s actually wild to see these numbers in the context of countries considered at the same level.

The narrative that Canadian debt service ratios are “not that bad,” lacks any context. Households devote a whole 5 points more to carrying debt, than any of their economic peers… just to continue having debt in good standing. Those are points removed from spending in the productive economy. When debt is this high, the only solution is to keep finding more ways to lend people money. At which point you’re less of a country, and more of a large lender with an army. 
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