Canadians willing to cut spending to reduce debt

A consumer pays with a credit card at a store in Montreal on July 6, 2010. An annual survey suggests Canadians are increasingly willing to reduce discretionary spending to reduce their debt. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz

More Canadians acknowledge they may be reaching the upper limits on borrowing, but they have yet to act on it, two new reports suggest.

A survey released Tuesday by accounting firm PwC found that 63 per cent of respondents said they wanted to decrease their debt levels over the next year — up 4.5 per cent from a year earlier — and many indicated they were ready to cut back on discretionary spending.

But in a separate report based on actual spending patterns, Moneris Solutions found that consumers had yet to act on their intentions.

The fresh data showed that consumer credit and debit card spending in Canada continued to grow. For the first three months of 2012, spending was up 5.34 per cent and it appeared to be climbing, with spending in March up 6.76 per cent.

The data did not include financing for homes, however, the largest part of household debt.

The seemingly contradictory findings suggests Canadians have made the intellectual leap on spending, but have yet to feel the pinch of debt payments in their pocketbook.

That is borne out by another finding in the PcW survey — Canadians may say they want to cut back, but two-thirds of respondents also said they were comfortable with their current debt level and fairly secure in their jobs.

"This comfort is likely due to our high real estate values and low interest rates, which make the debt seem minor in relation to the value of the property and easy to carry month to month," PwC said in a release.

With household debt at an all-time high above 150 per cent of income, the Bank of Canada has declared it the number one domestic risk to the economy.

In a recent interview, bank governor Mark Carney lamented the comfort level of Canadians with high debt, attributing it to the illusion of affordability at a time of sky-high home values and floor-low interest rates.

If house prices fall, however, Canadians could find themselves in a situation where their net assets decline as interest rates and hence their mortgage payments rise. Even a return to normalized rates would render 10 per cent of households financially vulnerable.

"If a point comes where house prices adjust downwards, the question is how is that going to impact consumption behaviour," Carney said.

"There is history in other jurisdictions where this has a bigger impact on consumption on the way down than it does on the way up."

A historical analysis from economist Daniel Leigh of the International Monetary Fund found that housing busts and recessions tend to be more severe and prolonged when preceded by a run-up of household debt.

Carney said the risks to the economy as well as the personal risks Canadians are taking on is why he has been urging more responsible borrowing and lending.

The PcW survey suggests Canadians have heard the message, even if their actions have not followed suit.

Overall, 69 per cent said they would be willing to delay the purchase of a new car, up from 64 per cent last year, the survey found.

Meanwhile, 62 per cent would delay buying a new house or upgrading to a bigger home (up from 56 per cent) and 61 per cent would forgo buying new electronics (up from 59 per cent).

"Across the board, we are seeing a new desire by Canadians to cut back on major expenditures from our survey a year ago," said John MacKinlay, leader of PwC's national financial services consulting and deals practice.

MacKinlay said the top reasons cited for wanting to reduce debt were fear of not being able to pay off debt (47 per cent), the fragile economy (46 per cent) and uncertainty in the financial markets (33 per cent).

As a result, PwC concluded that Canadian banks will likely experience a slowdown in loan growth over the next 12 months, increasing competition among the lenders.

"Given the prolonged low interest rate environment, banks may not have much leeway to compete for customers on price so they will have to focus their attention on customer experience and product innovation as means of differentiation," it said.

The survey also found that a big majority of respondents felt that the responsibility of keeping debt levels under control isn't theirs alone and that banks have a role to play.

In fact, 82 per cent said they believed banks should play a role in determining the maximum debt levels and then hold them to that limit. That was especially true of those making $100,000 or more a year (85 per cent) versus those making less (71 per cent).

Consumer lending is a cornerstone of Canada's banks, accounting for 27 per cent of their assets and 26 per cent of revenue, PwC said, adding that the largest driver of the personal lending market is real estate lending in the form of mortgages and home equity lines.

The survey of 1,200 Canadians was conducted in December and is considered accurate within plus or minus 2.8 percentage points 19 times out of 20.