Bank of Canada — engine of too much debt — warns about too much debt.

The Bank of Canada is warning Canadians about too much debt.

Experience suggests a long period of very low interest rates may be associated with excessive credit creation and undue risk-taking as investors seek higher returns, leading to the underpricing of risk and unsustainable increases in asset prices.

This is a remarkable statement, really — it reveals that the Bank of Canada’s economists either don’t know economics, or they pretend not to know. The issue should not be about how low interest rates “may” be associated with excessive credit and excessive risk. Rather, there is a direct causal relationship here.

Mises wrote:

If there is credit expansion [by the central bank], it must necessarily lower the rate of interest. If the banks are to find borrowers for additional credit, they must lower the rate of interest or lower the credit qualifications of would-be borrowers. Because all those who wanted loans at the previous rate of interest had gotten them, the banks must either offer loans at a lower interest rate or include in the class of businesses to whom loans are granted at the previous rate less-promising businesses, people of lower credit quality.

This is not rocket science. It is not a complex relationship to understand at all — if interest rates rise, there will be fewer risky loans than there would be otherwise; if interest rates falls, there will be more risky loans than there would be otherwise.

But if you have a PhD in economics, like our ex-Goldman central planner at the BoC, Mark Carney, you probably are incapable of understanding this, and would say something inane like, “In light of the high level of indebtedness of Canadian households, some caution in banks’ lending to households is warranted.”

Carney does not realize that lending standards are directly related to the ease with which credit is made available. Talk is cheap. If Carney jacked up interest rates to 10% tomorrow, that would have a dramatic impact on lending standards, much more so than his oracular admonitions about risky lending.

On the other hand, what would happen if Carney decided the economy was too weak, and he cut interest rates down to zero? Then we can rightly expect that more loans would be made to those businesses and individuals would have been previously deemed unworthy of credit. 

A lot of Canadians like to think we breezed through the financial crisis without too much pain and suffering — “our banks didn’t need a bailout,” and that we are leading the way out of economic ruin.

All is not well, however. The mammoth growth of consumer debt in this country, the worst of all OECD countries at about 140% debt-to-asset levels, is a very serious problem . With our housing market still in bubble territory, unemployment relatively low, and implausibly low interest rates, Canadians have been piling on more and more debt.

It’s so bad, even the banks — you know, the ones making all these questionable loans to Canadians mired in debt — are raising concerns. You have to acknowledge this is a bit rich — but don’t worry big Canadian banks — I am sure you can keep making your risky loans and if (when) things turn ugly, someone will bail you out.

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