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Housing market tightens after fourth-straight monthly drop in sales – Financial Post

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Prices rose 0.3 per cent to around $669,200

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Canada’s housing market posted its fourth month of sales declines as the number of people looking to sell their homes saw a precipitous decline despite prices near record levels.

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Transactions fell 3.5 per cent in July, with new listings dropping 8.8 per cent, according to data released Monday from the Canadian Real Estate Association. That caused the national average home price to rise 0.3 per cent to around $669,200 (US$532,600), while the ratio of sales to new listings, a measure of market tightness, rose to 74 per cent from 70 per cent the previous month.

The problem of high housing demand amid low supply has not gone anywhere — it’s arguably worse

Shaun Cathcart

Since the pandemic caused a buying frenzy in Canada that sent sales and prices to record heights in March, the market has been steadily cooling off as prospective buyers contend with a dearth of new houses for sale. Though increasing vaccination rates have begun to bring a return to normal life in Canada, that’s left the country to contend with one of the developed world’s most severe housing shortages and little prospect of much new supply becoming available soon.

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  1. The average price of a detached home sold in July in Toronto was $1.4 million.

    Toronto home sales fall to lowest in a year, but prices still rising

  2. Canada's housing market is showing early signs of a slowdown.

    Cooler housing market won’t hurt Canada’s recovery: CIBC

  3. Condo buildings in downtown Toronto. In the second quarter, the downtown market made up the highest proportion of greater Toronto area condo resales in a decade.

    Condos are getting hot again in Canada’s biggest cities as rental demand surges

  4. Toronto’s average rents per square foot increased 2 per cent (six cents per square foot) in the first quarter to $3.12 per square foot at the end of June.

    Toronto condo rents rise for first time in 18 months as impact of pandemic recedes

“We are not returning to normal, we are only returning to where we were before COVID, which was a far cry from normal,” Shaun Cathcart, the national real estate board’s senior economist, said in a press release accompanying the data. “The problem of high housing demand amid low supply has not gone anywhere — it’s arguably worse.”

The decline in listings was seen across Canada’s major cities, including Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver, with new supply down in about three quarters of the country’s markets, the data show. But despite this tightening, and the resulting drop in activity from the previous month, July home sales were still well above the average from the last 10 years.

Bloomberg.com

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FDA panel rejects Pfizer booster shots for most Americans – CBC News: The National

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Teetering property developer Evergrande sparks contagion fears for China's economy – CBC.ca

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Property developer China Evergrande Group is teetering on the brink of collapse, weighed down by a giant debt load and billions of dollars of real estate it can’t sell as quickly or as profitably as anticipated.

While trouble has been brewing for a year, it’s coming to a head now, as the conglomerate missed one loan payment in June and more are expected. The company’s offices were the site of angry protests this week, and things could get even uglier on Monday when the company is likely to miss another key interest payment to its increasingly concerned financiers.

Evergrande’s possible collapse is sparking fears that it could take other parts of China’s housing market down with it — and impact business interests outside China, too.

Here’s a brief explainer of what you need to know about the story.

What is Evergrande?

Founded in 1996 in the Chinese city of Shenzhen, across the border from Hong Kong, Evergrande is mostly a property developer, whose core business is buying up land and turning it into residential real estate. Company founder Hui Ka Yan is a former steel worker who rode China’s 21st century real estate boom to a fortune that was at one point last year worth $30 billion US, good enough for the title of third-richest man in China. 

The company has built more than 1,300 housing developments in 280 cities in China, with plans for another 3,000 projects underway in various cities across the country.

But like any good conglomerate, it has expanded into all sort of other businesses, including bottled water and food, electric vehicles, theme parks, a Netflix-like streaming service with almost 40 million customers — and even a professional soccer team.

Why are they in trouble?

Debt — and lots of it. The company has almost two trillion yuan of debt on its books, the equivalent of more than $300 billion US. The company aggressively borrowed money to buy more land to develop, and sold apartments quickly at low margins to raise enough cash to start the cycle up again. Which works fine as a business model — until it doesn’t.

In late 2020, new rules brought more scrutiny to the company’s finances, which revealed higher-than-expected debt loads. That, coupled with mounting construction delays spooked buyers, setting up a vicious cycle. The company began its descent to pariah status as lenders and buyers lost their nerve in lockstep with each other.

Every attempt by the company since then to distract from its problems only served to draw more attention to them. Lenders got more and more unsettled. Existing owners got upset. New sales slowed, which created a feedback loop that got lenders even more jittery.

WATCH | Investors angrily protest at Evergrande offices:

Chinese real estate jitters

19 hours ago

Buyers at Chinese property developer Evergrande are demanding answers from the company management, as fears mount that the company may collapse under its debt load. (David Kirton/Reuters) 0:34

In June, the company admitted it missed payment on a loan. The next month, a Chinese court froze a $20 million bank deposit at the request of one its lenders. At least one creditor, a paint supplier, is reportedly being paid in apartments that won’t be ready until 2024.

According to data compiled by Bloomberg, on the 19th of July, presales at two projects in Hunan were halted. Three days later, Hong Kong banks stopped offering mortgages on any incomplete projects by the company in the city. On August 9, two more projects in Kunming stopped construction due to missed payments, followed by similar halts at projects in Nanjing and Chengdu. Things have snowballed ever since. The company’s stock price has cratered by 90 per cent in the past year, and most of their bonds are in junk status.

The company is behind on its obligations to more than 70,000 investors. More than one million buyers of unfinished projects are in limbo. And the pace of problems is picking up. “Sales could slump further as the developer may struggle to restore potential homebuyers’ confidence,” said Lisa Zhou, an analyst with Bloomberg Intelligence.

Monday figures to be an inflection point for the company as Evergrande is supposed to make an $80 million interest payment on one of its many loans, and there’s next to no chance it will pay that, which could start the clock ticking toward some undesirable outcomes.

So what could happen?

A number of bleak B words are on the table — bankruptcy, breakup, buyout, or bailout — and none of them are ideal.

The first option would be the most painful. 

“If, as expected, Evergrande is defaulting on its debt and goes through a restructuring, I don’t see why it would be contained,” Michel Lowy of distressed debt investment firm SC Lowy, told Reuters.

The Emerald Bay residential project in Hong Kong has been beset by delays, and spooked buyers. ( Lam Yik/Bloomberg)

But because of the Chinese government’s long-standing desire for stability, that’s also the least likely outcome. The company owes money to 128 different banks, and was behind almost one out of every 20 property sales in China in the past five years. Evergrande permanently employs almost 200,000 people, but hires almost four million people a year to work on various projects.

With a reach that wide, analysts who cover the sector are confident that Beijing won’t let the company simply collapse. “Evergrande’s escalating crisis may prompt government action to prevent social instability,” Zhou said.

More likely is some version of the next two options, a breakup or buyout, where the company sells assets to raise cash and help is brought in to run things. “State-owned enterprises or other developers may also take over Evergrande’s projects, after Chinese officials sent accounting and legal experts to examine the company’s finances,” Zhou said.

A full government bailout, however, is just as unlikely. China has been cracking down on its high-flying technology sector, trying to regulate and ban cryptocurrencies and reining in excesses in all sorts of sectors. Evergrande’s problems may be a test case in Beijing’s desire and ability to manage every facet of the growing economy.

A man walks past a banner promoting the Emerald Bay residential project in Hong Kong, amid news that the developer is teetering on the brink of collapse. (Lam Yik/Bloomberg)

Economist Art Woo with Bank of Montreal said in a note on Friday that he also doubts a bailout is coming. “As for who could bear the losses, that’s frankly tricky to predict, but we think it’s reasonable to believe that the authorities are unlikely to bail out equity holders or creditors in an effort to prevent moral hazard from increasing and improve financial discipline,” he said.

More likely is some sort of organized wind down, to keep damage to a minimum. “We do not believe the government has an incentive to bail out Evergrande (which is a private-owned enterprise),” Nomura analyst Iris Chen said in a note to clients.

“But they will also not actively push Evergrande down and will supervise a more orderly default, if any, in our view.”

WATCH | CBC reported on China’s ‘ghost cities’ of empty towers nearly a decade ago:

China’s ghost cities

9 years ago

CBC’s Adrienne Arsenault explains how empty skyscrapers are casting shadows on the Canadian economy. 2:31

Is there an impact outside China?

Not much, directly, although the company does have assets in Europe and North America — including the ritzy Château Montebello resort in Quebec — but the company’s woes are nonetheless a cautionary tale for people everywhere.

China has been in a housing boom for more than two decades now, as more and more people put money into residential real estate — almost regardless of the price and demand for the underlying asset.

Video went viral on social media this month of a 15-tower condo development in Kunming being dynamited to the ground because it was a ghost city with no actual residents, eight years after being built.

While that wasn’t an Evergrande project, the worry is that there are many others out there like it.

China’s Lehman Brothers moment?

The 2009 financial crisis was sparked by the failure of two investment banks, Bear Stearns and then Lehman Brothers, which exposed just how much bad debt there was in the system, and caused a chain reaction of worry down the line 

That may be far fetched for the economy as a whole this time around, but it’s certainly on the table for China’s housing market at least.

“Lehman (was) very different as it went across the financial system, freezing activity,” said Patrick Perret-Green, an independent London-based analyst.

“Millions of contracts with multiple counterparties, everyone was trying to work out their exposure,” he said. “With Evergrande it depresses the entire real estate sector.”

“There are other developers that are suffering from the same problem of no access to liquidity and have extended themselves too much,” Lowy said.

Simon MacAdam, an economist with Capital Economics, says the Lehman parables are unwarranted.

“The China’s Lehman moment narrative is wide of the mark,” he said. “Even if it were the first of many property developers to go bust in China, we suspect it would take a policy misstep for this to cause a sharp slowdown in its economy.”

Regardless, the Evergrande saga is a cautionary tale about the down side of unrestrained real estate speculation anywhere.

As Woo put it: “A default or bankruptcy does not pose a Lehman-type threat … but it’s still bad news for the economy.”

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After starting in Edmonton, Teamsters seeking to unionize 8 other Canadian Amazon facilities – CBC.ca

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The Teamsters workers’ union has launched campaigns to organize employees in at least nine Canadian facilities of U.S. e-commerce company Amazon.com, according to Reuters interviews with union officials.

The influential union took the first step earlier this week to organize employees at one of Amazon’s Canadian facilities, and the interviews reveal it is widening such efforts across the country, where the e-commerce company employs about 25,000 workers and plans to add 15,000 more.

The campaigns could be seen as a bet by the Teamsters that early success unionizing employees in a more labour-friendly market such as Canada will inspire similar results south of the border, where Amazon has so far fended off unionization attempts.

In the latest challenge to Amazon’s anti-unionization stance, Edmonton’s Teamsters Local Union 362 filed for a vote on union representation at a company fulfilment centre in nearby Nisku late on Monday.

Interviews with Teamsters units in other cities and provinces show that the union’s efforts stretch from British Columbia to southern Ontario.

40% of workers already on board

The Teamsters’ Edmonton unit says it has enough signed cards calling for a union to meet the 40 per cent threshold to require a vote. Two of the union’s units in Ontario and one in Alberta have confirmed they are signing membership cards with Amazon workers.

And two of the five units that confirmed to Reuters that they are organizing said they are running campaigns at multiple sites, bringing the total Amazon facilities involved in some level of organizing to at least nine.

Any locals that have an Amazon facility in their area are doing an organizing campaign, Jim Killey, an organizer with Teamsters Local 879 near Hamilton, Ont., told Reuters.

Amazon did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Earlier in the week, Amazon Canada spokesperson Dave Bauer said in an emailed statement: “As a company, we don’t think unions are the best answer for our employees.”

Unions would prevent the company from changing quickly to meet employees’ needs and represent “the voices of a select few,” he said.

The Teamsters say they can help the workers win better wages and benefits, such as leaves of absence.

Long battle ahead

Unionization votes in Canada do not have any direct bearing on the United States, but they could raise enthusiasm, said John Logan, a labour professor at San Francisco State University.

Organizing at a place like Amazon requires workers to take a certain amount of risk, Logan said. If they can look to other places and see that that risk has paid off for other workers, then they are far more inclined to do it themselves.

Union members are going to great lengths to connect with Amazon workers, sleeping in their cars to catch the employees after graveyard shifts and forging ties at local churches.

The International Brotherhood of Teamsters, which has more than a million members in the United States and Canada, has made organizing Amazon a top priority, describing it as an “existential threat.”

Amazon does not have any unionized facilities in North America. The Teamsters is one of a handful of unions trying to undertake the daunting task of organizing its vast, high-churn workforce.

Earlier this year, the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) lost a vote to organize workers in Bessemer, Ala., by a more than two-to-one margin. Amazon pushed hard against unionization, and the result is being disputed.

The Teamsters have indicated they will not seek to hold such votes in the United States any time soon, arguing the process is unfairly tilted toward employers.

But in Canada, where labour laws are more favourable, the Teamsters see an opportunity to go straight to the ballot box.

The Teamsters’ Killey said his chapter is campaigning at Amazon facilities in Milton, Cambridge and Kitchener, all traditionally working-class towns just west of Toronto.

“Where we see there is a lot of support, we’re going to go full steam ahead,” said Christopher Monette, spokesperson for Teamsters Canada.

Jason Sweet, president of Teamsters Local 419 in Ontario, said his unit has begun signing cards with workers in the Greater Toronto Area and has formed WhatsApp groups with Amazon workers to keep them abreast of the union’s efforts, delivering updates every 48 hours or so. “We are trying to build relationships from the inside,” he said.

In British Columbia, Teamsters Local 31 president Stan Hennessy said potential members have been receptive.

“Our hope is that we can help these workers,” he said. “They certainly can use some help.”

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