Most Canadians comfortable with debt despite warnings, survey finds
Published Monday, September 24, 2012 7:00AM EDT
Last Updated Monday, September 24, 2012 6:34PM EDT
TORONTO -- A new poll suggests that most Canadians are quite comfortable with using debt as a financial strategy -- at a time when debt loads have risen to alarming new highs.
The survey, done for bankruptcy trustees Hoyes, Michalos & Associates, finds nine out of ten respondents would consider borrowing money to cover an unexpected cost.
The poll by Harris/Decima asked respondents how confident they were about being able to raise $2,000 within a month if an unexpected need arose.
While 55 per cent said they were extremely or very confident they could raise the cash, 92 per cent said they'd consider borrowing to come up with some of the cash.
Less than half -- 45 per cent -- said they'd never faced a debt problem.
The poll results come as Canadian debt-to-income ratios sit at a record 152 per cent and top officials issue warnings to start paying down debt before interest rates rise.
The findings suggest consumers have been unmoved by warnings that rates will inevitably rise and that the resulting financial burden could sink some households.
"It's frightening to see that Canadians have become totally blase about debt -- it's becoming their new 'normal' and they're numb to this dangerous trend," says Douglas Hoyes, a bankruptcy trustee with Hoyes, Michalos & Associates Inc.
"For many, the use of debt to not only pay for big ticket items like cars, but also to cover day-to-day living expenses, has become commonplace."
Consumers have taken advantage of ultra low interest rates since the 2008-9 recession to heap on low-cost debt.
The Bank of Canada's key interest rate -- which affects banks' prime rates for loans -- remains on hold at one per cent, where it has been since September 2010. Coming out of the recession, the central bank set the rate as low as 0.25 per cent in an effort to stimulate borrowing and therefore the domestic economy.
However, with rates still low as the central bank tries to buffer against a globally depressed economic backdrop, the Bank of Canada has declared household debt the number one risk to Canada's economy.
The Hoyes, Michalos & Associates poll results suggest the trend toward debt accumulation is continuing as 26 per cent of respondents said their debt level is higher than a year ago.
The survey also found that 70 per cent of respondents said they need immediate help with daily financial matters, including paying down debt (20, and improving cash flow (13%).
Ted Michalos, a bankruptcy trustee with Hoyes, Michalos & Associates said it appears that Canadians are replacing saving for a rainy day with accessing debt to deal with financial problems.
"Canadians are carrying record levels of debt and yet, surprisingly, 62 per cent of those surveyed are comfortable with their financial situation," Michalos said.
"That is quite a disjoint. It's concerning to see that access to credit and taking on more debt has become an accepted part of financial planning," he added.
One-in-five Canadians surveyed said they believe it would take them two months or longer to come up with $2,000, even if they could borrow. Among those who said they couldn't raise the money within a month, 26 per cent said they couldn't raise the money no matter how much time they were given.
"That's a lot of people who are already at their maximum borrowing capacity," Hoyes said.
The Harris/Decima survey interviewed 1,010 Canadians between Aug. 15 and 23. The survey has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 per cent, 19 times out of 20.
Last month, a report on Canadian debt trends by TransUnion found the average consumer's non-mortgage debt load rose another $192 to $26,221 in the second quarter -- the highest average debt per person it has seen since it began tracking the variable in 2004.
The quarter also marks something of a turning point as the second consecutive quarter in which debt accelerated following more than a year of quarterly declines.
In July, another consumer credit reporting agency, Equifax Canada reported that consumer indebtedness, excluding mortgage debt, grew 3.1 per cent year-over-year in the second quarter, down from 4.4 per cent in the same period of 2011.
The Equifax study also found that high-interest credit card debt fell by 3.8 in the quarter and consumer bankruptcies were down 4.5 per cent from a year earlier. Meanwhile, bank loans and lines of credit showed very moderate growth compared to a year ago.