Poloz Got My Memo

December 14th, 2014 by Potato

In a shocking change from vague mumbles about concern over debt levels, the Bank of Canada broke out The Potato Gambit this week, explicitly saying that houses are over-valued and by how much.

I’ve said several times over the past few years* that the housing bubble is held up by a number of factors: belief that there isn’t a bubble being the main one. There are many possible ways for that belief to be tested and for the bubble to end. Having someone credible coming out clearly on the news stating that there is over-valuation could help end it overnight, as the veil is lifted from the eyes of the masses in one move. In other words, that it would be possible to talk the market down by pointing out that the emperor has no clothes, absent any other catalyst (despite the “need” for rates to rise, or unemployment to rise, or for the yield curve to invert, or CMHC to be reformed, or whatever other supposed necessary condition people come up with).

Stating how much housing was over-valued by was a key component of the gambit — the end of bubbles is always a nasty, drawn-out affair as the market gropes to find solid ground. Many houses will go unsold, their owners trapped as the market goes “no-bid” with people waiting to see where the bottom is, unsure if 10% off the last traded price is a good deal, or just the start of a more substantial correction. So, the theory went, if someone like the finance minister (or as it turned out, the BoC) stood up and said “the market is over-valued, and by this much” then people could bid 30% less, and sellers would know that indeed, that was not just some totally flaky buyer taking the piss but a legitimate post-correction offer that they should take. And the sellers won’t list just to see what they can get — if they’d rather hold than sell at those prices, then they can do that without all the listing and rejecting offers business, keeping inventory at normal levels. Boom, the correction could be over in a day.

All that has to happen is for all the buyers and some of the sellers to get with the program.

I know we’re only a few days into the new enlightened age, but it’s not looking good so far. The government is not presenting a united front, with Joe Oliver sticking to the old party line that there is no bubble. The media is not following-through on the gambit with the “so there, correct your bidding strategy now!” message, and headlines of “what a 30% correction means for your local town.” There are a few stories taking it seriously, but no real call to action. This article in the Globe has the headline “Why Canadians should consider Poloz’s overvalued housing warning “, which kind of starts to make the case that this is a real issue, but then it ends with “You can, of course, brush off such threats…” And I’m not seeing a massive shift in sentiment on the various forums or at a party this weekend — as credible as the Bank of Canada is, the message isn’t taking hold.

So maybe it will work if it can stay in the news cycle a little longer, but given that this is already the nadir of the market for housing activity, and the story may be forgotten come spring, it’s not looking good for the Potato gambit’s effectiveness. It was worth a shot.

* – Apparently mostly on forums, as I can’t find a post in my archives to link to, other than an unpublished draft.

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