Times are wild. Canadian home prices are so out of control that prices in Orillia, Ontario (at an average of more than $900,000) are now on par with house prices in Los Angeles. You can buy a single-family home in the entertainment capital of the world, with its legendary sandy beaches and near perfect weather, or spend the same to live in Orillia, which has several Tim Horton’s and that sweet casino. This is a point I made earlier this month in a now viral tweet that was meant to be a lighthearted poke at the housing issue. Millennials and other aspiring homebuyers felt it nailed their growing frustrations about the real estate market.
But some felt the need to explain that prices will continue to rise due to immigration. It’s something we’ve all heard before — millions of immigrants over the next decade will come for more opportunity. Often people will say Canada is getting half a million more per year going forward, as if the Prime Minister can just pop into the immigrant store and pick up a few hundred thousand. The assumption is Canada has been a great place to immigrate to in the past, and it will be going forward. Is that actually true?
Many believe Canada is still a great place to live with lots of opportunity and free health care. But the truth is, Canada’s reputation as a place of opportunity is fading. It’s prohibitively expensive to live here, wages aren’t stellar, and lots of other places have quality health care. Even so, Canadians assume immigrants will come at any cost. Somehow they have endless cash to drive home prices, but also don’t have any option other than Canada. Let’s take a look at this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity immigrants can’t pass up.
Anyone who’s thinking of buying or selling a home, or has read a newspaper, knows Canadian home prices are outrageous. Last week’s interest rate hike doesn’t change the reality that home prices just increased at the fastest rate in four decades, outpacing that of any of our G7 peers. National Bank of Canada estimates the median urban home price was $732,600 in the last quarter of 2021. By their calculations, a minimum household income of $147,000 is needed to carry the mortgage. That’s nearly double the median household income, already a hurdle for professional couples. It’s a near impossible task for young adults or recent immigrants.
The sky-high cost of real estate is just one part of the issue. The cost of living in general is a problem, and it’s not about to recede, as inflation hits a three-decade high. The Institute for Canadian Citizenship (ICC) recently surveyed newcomers on their experience. The immigration advocacy group found that one in five plan to leave within two years. This is primarily due to the cost of living, which 64 per cent felt would be a barrier for future immigrants.
Put bluntly, Canada’s ambitious immigration growth plans are based on a country that no longer exists, a place where you can settle and enjoy social class mobility. Immigrants are finding themselves in a similar situation to Canada’s young adults. Signs of diminishing opportunity and bleak economic growth have begun to appear. At the same time, countries where immigrants traditionally arrive from are starting to catch up and offer greater social mobility.
Pressure makes diamonds, right? Defenders of the status quo argue that a high failure rate is the cost of buying into a hypercompetitive economy. Sure, many immigrants have an entrepreneurial spirit and will take a calculated risk. Does that describe Canada and will it in the future?
There’s no doubt Canada has historically been a great opportunity for immigrants. It boasts of its gross domestic product (GDP) growth rate, which frequently tops the G7. It sounds impressive if you don’t understand that Canada is the smallest member and that small numbers are easier to grow. Without adjusting for size, it’s unclear if the output of people grew or the number of people did. By measuring GDP per capita, we see this more clearly.
From 2000 to 2007, Canada was booming. The real GDP per capita averaged 1.6 per cent per year — remarkable growth for a relatively mature economy. It narrowly beat the U.S. by 0.1 points, topping the G7 at the time.
This was the Golden Age if you were young or immigrating to Canada. Housing was the most affordable in the past 40 years, and the country had the best economic progress in the G7. Moving here was like getting in on the IPO without having to do the turbulent seed rounds in the ’80s.
It’s not hard to understand why. A smaller share of income on shelter means more money for investment or consumption, and one person’s spending is another person’s income. Shelter is, by definition, a non-productive asset. It doesn’t matter if you spend $100 or $1 million; the home does the same thing for the user after it’s built. Investment and spending, in contrast, is how economies grow and wealth circulates.
The Great Recession is where Canada’s low rate addiction sent it spiralling. Our GDP per capita fell to 0.8 per cent per year between 2008 and 2020, failing to outperform the OECD average. Canada placed in the middle of the G7 for performance. It’s fairly common for people to think Canada managed this period better due to the lack of a housing crash. Most don’t realize real home prices in cities like Toronto had yet to recover from the early ’90s high. Home prices didn’t fall much because they hadn’t recovered from the last crash yet.
The opportunity for young adults and immigrants began to close during this period. Low rates were arguably needed to mitigate the Great Recession’s economic risks. However, Canada became addicted to cheap and superficial growth.
The Bank of Canada (BoC) has worked very hard to reduce interest costs: Traditional logic is that lower interest rates mean smaller payments and more cash flow. There’s only one hitch — that only applies to rational players in a balanced market. In reality, people’s emotions can get the best of them.
The BoC twice demonstrated they misunderstood the relationship between low rates and home prices. The first time was in the 2021 revisions to its primary forecast model. Like a Christopher Columbus of monetary policy, it had apparently discovered that credit influences home prices. They must have missed that whole U.S. housing bubble-thing.
The BoC reinforced the impact of low rates on rising home prices in a December speech. Looking at the past 30 years of home prices and mortgages, they found a trend. Mortgage rates consistently fell, but the cost of housing continued to rise. When “interest rates fall, many households simply adjust by borrowing more,” explained Deputy Gov. Paul Beaudry to a provincial regulator last November.
Best-case scenario, they had no clue what they were doing. This is a point I explained in further detail to Canadian Parliament’s Finance Committee, when invited to explain Canada’s high inflation.
What does monetary policy have to do with immigration? A lot.
If capital has improperly incentivized use, it creates economic inefficiencies. One example is residential investment, the portion of the economy covering home construction, major renovation, and land transfer costs — which reached 9.56 per cent of GDP in Q4, the last financial quarter of 2021. For context, this is almost 50 per cent higher than the U.S. at the peak of its real estate bubble. It’s accepted that the share of the U.S. economy devoted to building more housing during this time was reckless.
Here is a telling statistic: About 1 in 59 working adults in Toronto are realtors. Think of how many public schools you see in a week. Now realize you’re more likely to meet a realtor than a public-school teacher in the city.
Real estate investment has also diverted capital from the country’s real productivity. One area where this is showing up, often associated with the immigrant experience, is self-employment. The segment recently fell to the smallest share of employed people since the 1980s (13.7 per cent, as of March). Why spend capital on a risky business that can create jobs when you can, if you’re lucky, buy a condo?
The shift from fostering productivity to non-productive assets is attracting international attention. The OECD’s forecast for Canada shows GDP growth per capita of 0.7 per cent per year from 2020 to 2030 — significantly below the U.S. rate (42 per cent lower) as well as the OECD average (46 per cent lower). Canada would occupy the spot Greece held after the global financial crisis, which is a fun fact that won’t make the immigration brochure.
The slow growth has already set off alarms in Canada’s business community.
“Past generations of young Canadians entering the workforce could look forward to favourable tailwinds lifting real incomes over their working lives. That’s no longer the case,” said David Williams, who heads the Business Council of British Columbia (BCBC).
“If the OECD’s long-range projections prove correct, young people entering the workforce today will not feel much of a tailwind at all,” he wrote in an analysis this past February. “Rather, they face a long period of stagnating average real incomes that will last most of their working lives.”
Canada’s openness to immigration is pitched as civic-minded global leadership. When you dig into the data, it looks more like a bait and switch — a cover for inbound colonialism.
Policy-makers are focused on the benefits immigrants provide to older Canadians. They often cite strong housing demand, and tax revenues to help with demographics. These aren’t selling points to come to Canada — they’re the reason Canada needs immigrants.
Canada’s historically endless supply of immigrants might dry up in the not-so-distant future. The country’s largest source of immigrants by far is India, the source of a third of arrivals. A distant second is China, followed by the Philippines and Nigeria. It turns out PwC has forecast those countries will be larger and wealthier economies in less than 30 years. The most sought-after talent wants an economy looking to foster and support them. An economy looking for half their income for taxes and a third for rent isn’t as competitive as you might think.
Yes, 30 years is a long time. Not as long as it might sound, though, and competition for Canada’s immigration pool will emerge quickly. In India, the World Economic Forum forecasts that 80 per cent of households will be middle class by 2030, and drive 70 per cent of the economy. The government is fostering a “founder’s mentality,” which will build the entrepreneurial mindset. As a result, the country will become a “playground for growth and innovation.”
China may have an even faster trajectory, according to The Economist. The country is forecast to pass the World Bank’s threshold for high-income countries by next year. If it does so, that would be declared in the mid-2024 update. That’s right around the corner.
These are just a couple of countries Canada draws immigrants from. It would be silly to think other countries aren’t competing for the same pool of talent. It’s downright naive to think they aren’t scouting Canada’s domestic talent too.
Canada was a great place to immigrate and can be once again with a little more planning. However, the country needs to stop treating immigrants as commodities. At some point in the not-so-distant future immigrants might start to feel like they’re being catfished with an early 2000s picture of Canada.
Instead, the country should focus on an environment where young adults thrive. Foster a healthy business and innovation environment, and Canada won’t need the hard sales pitch. People will flock here.
Ignore the environment and sell an opportunity that no longer exists? Forget about attracting immigrants. By 2030, Canada might be trying to figure out how to just retain its young adults.
Stephen Punwasi is a data analyst and the co-founder of the housing news site Better Dwelling.