What Australia’s fires could mean for insurance & real estate in Canada

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Australia’s devastating fires have already destroyed nearly 1,900 homes, but they’re just one of the many types of hazards facing homeowners.

Climate change is raising the frequency and severity of a number of natural disasters, from flooding and cyclones to soil subsidence, which causes structural damage when clay soils start to contract during prolonged periods of drought.

The increased risk has implications for insurance and beyond, according to climate risk analyst Karl Mallon. A recent report from his firm, Climate Risk, projects that 720,000 homes, or five per cent of Australia’s housing stock, will be uninsurable by 2100 as coverage becomes unavailable or prohibitively expensive.

That kind of analysis has caught the attention of lenders. Two of Australia’s largest banks have recruited Mallon to help them assess how climate-related risks might affect their mortgage portfolios. One of them projected that increased insurance costs would increase its share of high-risk mortgages 10-fold in the span of around 40 years, from 0.01 per cent in 2018 to 0.1 per cent by 2060.

Data on exposure to flood risk is already driving decisions about whether to issue mortgages in some cases, Mallon said.

Over time, Mallon sees areas where getting a mortgage will become very difficult. The risk for those properties is that they’ll become hard to sell and eventually decline in value, he added.

The link between natural disasters, insurance and mortgages may be emerging in Canada as well. In both Australia and Canada, however, the issue seems to be centred around flooding for now.

Australia bushfires: Why the situation is likely to get worse

Australia bushfires: Why the situation is likely to get worse

What about fires?

Whether Australia’s extraordinary fire season will have an impact on insurance premiums remains uncertain.

For one, it’s only the beginning of the summer Down Under, and Australians are holding their breath for what the rest of the season might bring.

Until now, though, “bushfires traditionally have been no cause for concern on the insurance front,” Mallon said.

That’s because even though Australia is prone to fires, they haven’t caused damage on a scale that insurers would consider “an unacceptable probability,” he added.

It’s too soon to tell whether the current fires will change that.

Fire and water are significantly different beasts in the world of home insurance, said Rob de Pruis of the Insurance Bureau of Canada.

Overland flood insurance, which covers damage from water flowing above ground and seeping into buildings through doors, windows and cracks, only became available in 2015 in Canada. Its introduction was largely an industry response to the 2013 southern Alberta floods, which resulted in $6 billion in damages, of which just $1.7 billion was covered by insurance.

Damage from sewer backup is also a growing issue for insurers. They are facing both an increased likelihood of flooding caused by flash rain, which has been linked to climate change, and higher repair costs, partly because finished basements have become more common.

Home insurers are also struggling with a lack of up-to-date information about where flooding is likely to happen, although the government is working on updating Canada’s flood-risk maps, de Pruis said.

Severe flooding is also happening with increasing regularity, a problem for insurance, which is meant to cover events that are “infrequent and unforeseeable,” de Pruis said.

Fire, by contrast, is a familiar hazard to the home insurance industry, which traces its origins to the Great Fire of London in 1666, which nearly destroyed the city. Coverage for fire damage, including from wildfire, is standard in any home insurance policy.

Extensive losses from fires, on the other hand, have remained relatively rare in both Canada and Australia so far.

In Australia, for example, it usually takes several years after a bushfire for vegetation to grow back to a point where there is fuel for another fire, Mallon said.

In Canada, even the Fort McMurray fire of 2016, the most expensive event for insurers in modern Canadian history, did not shake the industry.

Canada’s domestic insurance companies had their own insurance to fall back on, something known as re-insurance, according to de Pruis. And the $3.7 billion in insured damages claimed by the Alberta blaze remain a relatively small price tag for the trillion-dollar giants of the global reinsurance market, which have seen natural disasters billed at tens of billions of dollars in other parts of the world, de Pruis said.

And for now, de Pruis added, there is just not enough information to predict the future of wildfires in Canada.

But experts warn climate change is helping make wildfires worse.

Is real estate still a good investment for Canadians?

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Canada is home to two of the world’s most overvalued real estate markets

Toronto is the second-most overvalued real estate market in the world, according to a UBS report.

The Global Real Estate Bubble Index found only Munich is deeper into bubble territory.

“Price bubbles are a regularly recurring phenomenon in property markets. The term ‘bubble’ refers to a substantial and sustained mispricing of an asset, the existence of which cannot be proven unless it bursts,” said the report.

“The UBS Global Real Estate Bubble Index gauges the risk of a property bubble on the basis of such patterns.”

Experts say Toronto’s plight is due to factors like a lack of supply and foreign money. But measures to tackle the issues it faces have largely been unsuccessful in countering rising prices.

“Real housing prices in the city almost tripled between 2000 and 2017.”

“As in Vancouver, local authorities introduced a foreign buyers’ tax, rent controls and tighter mortgage standards to tackle worsening affordability.”

Vancouver is lower down the list in seventh place, but is still considered a bubble risk.

“In just a couple of quarters, year-on-year price growth rates have reversed from 10 per cent to minus seven per cent,” said the report.

“Sky-high valuations and overstretched affordability have made the market vulnerable to even minor demand shifts.”

Despite the cooldown, Vancouver is still home to Canada’s highest-priced real estate with the average home costing as much as $993,300.

Hong Kong, Amsterdam, Frankfurt, Paris, Zurich, London and San Francisco round out the top 10.

UBS said we could be at the end of the global boom in high-priced real estate markets.

“Price growth rates have continued to slow in a majority of cities,” said the report.

“Average price growth has come to a standstill for the first time since 2012.”

Jessy Bains is a senior reporter at Yahoo Finance Canada. 

Founder of Chinese company with billions in B.C. assets gets 18 years for fraud

SHANGHAI _ A court in Shanghai sentenced the founder of the Chinese insurance company that owns New York City’s Waldorf Hotel to 18 years in prison on Thursday after he pleaded guilty to fraudulently raising billions of dollars from investors, state media reported.

Shanghai’s No. 1 Intermediate People’s Court also ordered the confiscation of 10.5 billion yuan ($1.6 billion) in assets from Wu Xiaohui, the former chairman of Anbang Insurance Group, which had gained a reputation for ambitiously expanding into hotels, real estate and insurance from Canada to South Korea.

Wu, who founded privately owned Anbang in 2004, has been accused of misleading investors and diverting money for his own use. He was detained last year and regulators seized control of Anbang in February. He was shown on state TV in March admitting guilt.

Wu initially had denied his guilt at his one-day trial, according to an earlier court statement.

According to Xinhua, Wu concealed his ownership of shares in companies controlled by Anbang, filed false statements with financial authorities and lured investors by offering rates of return above that offered elsewhere. Much of the business relied on selling insurance products to raise investment capital.

It said he used more than 100 companies under his control to manage funds and authorities later recovered bank savings, real estate and other assets. Wu used his position to misappropriate 10 billion yuan ($1.5 billion) in Anbang’s deposits, according to Xinhua’s lengthy report.

Xinhua said the court determined the length of the sentence according to the facts of the case, the severity of the crime, and its “degree of social harm.” It said more than 50 people were present at the sentencing, including Wu’s relatives and journalists.

Anbang last month said it was receiving a $9.6 billion bailout from a government-run fund. That would mean the government fund owns 98 per cent of the company, wiping out most of the equity stake once held by Wu and other shareholders.

The company had engaged in a global asset-buying spree in recent years, raising questions about its stability. Anbang discussed possibly investing in a Manhattan skyscraper owned by the family of U.S. President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and adviser, Jared Kushner. Those talks ended last year with no deal.

The negotiations with Kushner Cos. about 666 Fifth Ave. prompted members of the U.S. Congress to raise ethics concerns.

The Anbang case is one of a string of scandals in what had been a stodgy Chinese insurance industry long-dominated by state-owned insurers. The industry’s former top regulator was charged in September with taking bribes and other insurers have been accused of reckless speculation in stocks and real estate.

The Communist Party has made reducing financial risk a priority this year after a surge in debt prompted rating agencies last year to cut Beijing’s credit rating for government borrowing.

Anbang is being run by a committee of officials from China’s insurance regulator, central bank and other agencies. They have said its obligations to policyholders and creditors are unaffected.

Over the years, Anbang grew to more than 30,000 employees with 35 million clients. It diversified into life insurance, banking, asset management, leasing and brokerage services.

Speculation is rife over possible sales of Anbang’s assets, which, in addition to the iconic Waldorf purchased for almost $2 billion include Dutch insurer Vivat NV, the San Francisco Westin St. Francis and hotels, real estate and insurance holdings in Canada, Belgium and South Korea.

Real estate group fears homegrown pot risks fires, property damage

OTTAWA _ The Canadian Real Estate Association says Ottawa needs to put the brakes on letting people grow pot at home until it can better regulate it to prevent property damage and higher risks of crime and fires.

It is the latest criticism of the government’s legislation legalizing marijuana that is inching its way through the Senate as the government tries to make pot legal to buy, grow and sell across the country this summer.

The bill would allow individuals to grow up to four pot plants at home as long as they are below a certain height, but association CEO Michael Bourque says there are too many risks from home grow-ops that haven’t been addressed yet.

Bourque is one of several parties discussing the pot bill at the Senate social affairs committee this week.

Later today, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland will appear at the Senate foreign affairs committee to talk about how the bill may affect international commitments, including United Nations drug treaties.

Three Senate committees today are also expected to release preliminary reports on their views of the bill, including possible impacts on Indigenous communities, the border and some of the Criminal Code and judicial elements in the bill.

B.C.’s tight rental market has landlords asking personal questions: report

Some landlords in British are asking prospective tenants for too much personal information including credit card details, three months worth of bank statements and inquiring whether applicants were born in Canada, says the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner.

Acting commissioner Drew McArthur said 1.5 million people live in rental housing, representing about 30 per cent of all households in B.C., but the vacancy rate is so low across much of the province that landlords are taking advantage of the power imbalance.

“Housing is big business in B.C.: In one estimate, residential tenancy generates a greater direct impact on GDP than the mining or forestry industries,” McArthur said in a report released March 22, 2018.

Nationally, the urban centres with the lowest vacancy rates are all in British Columbia, with the province’s overall vacancy rate at 1.3 per cent, he said, adding Vancouver’s rate is 0.9 per cent. The lowest rate is in Abbotsford-Mission and Kelowna at 0.2 per cent.

McArthur said his office is investigating whether a new service complies with the Personal Information Protection Act in its collection of information about tenants from sources including social media platforms, which landlords are not authorized to search.

“In addition, I understand that some of these organizations require prospective tenants to complete behavioural questionnaires to evaluate their character,” McArthur said.

The Human Rights Code also prevents landlords from asking for information about race, religion and family status, McArthur said.

“You also cannot inspect an applicant’s current residence or ask if an applicant may become pregnant in the next 12 months,” he said.

Landlords are authorized to collect a reasonable amount of information, such as references, recent pay stubs, a letter from an employer or permission to call an employer about income, as well as age for rental properties restricted to people over 55.

McArthur said his office receives calls daily from anonymous tenants worried about the over-collection of their personal information though many don’t file complaints because they fear being blacklisted.

In one case, a caller said a landlord asked for copies of their child’s report cards, he said.

“During this investigation, I heard from tenants seeking luxury accommodation as well as basic housing. I heard from young people and from retirees, in urban and rural areas.”

One caller reported a landlord insisted on seeing his T4 slips, even though he had already verified his income by providing a letter from his employer, and another person said a landlord demanded consent to a credit check after an offer to pay one year’s rent in advance.

“A landlord is only authorized to request consent for a credit check where a tenant is not able to provide satisfactory references, or employment and income verification,” the report says. “While it is reasonable to collect a prospective tenant’s credit history in these circumstances, it will not be necessary for most tenants, and a landlord cannot require every applicant to consent to a credit check.”

The report is based on a review of 13 tenancy applications, eight involving for-profit landlords and five that pertain to non-profit organizations. It found 10 of 13 landlords collect information, that, if used, would contravene the Human Rights Code as well as the Personal Information Protection Act.

Information requested included birth date, driver’s licence number, social insurance number, federal tax assessments, whether the applicant speaks English and the name of their bank and how long they’d been a customer there.

The report makes 13 recommendations, including that landlords must state clear, specific purposes for collecting personal information.

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