The Downside of Low Interest Rates

Boy, did we Canadians go on a debt binge last year. Our total consumer debt, excluding mortgages, reached $1.4 trillion at the end of 2009. We are now officially the most overextended country of the big 20 developed nations. For all the pain we see from US families, we now owe more than Americans, on a per capita basis, and even more than the average Greek family! Right now, we are in debt $1.44 for every dollar of income. If there were to be a setback in the economy again, we’d be in big trouble.

Or, as we talked about a month or so ago, when rates keep climbing, we’re in the same trouble. Don’t forget, consumer debt, other than probably our fixed-rate car loans, most everything else from lines of credit to credit cards are on variable rates. That means, rates go up, you’re paying that increase the following month.

Yesterday, the Bank of Canada raised interest rates another quarter of a percent for the second time. On each $100,000 of debt that is not on a fixed rate, these two rate increases will cost you $500 a year and rising.

Behind the scenes, the federal government is taking steps to clamp down on our debt loads. A few months ago, the Federal Finance Minister announced changes to the down payments for mortgages, and the total that can be refinanced on a home.

The next wave of pressure, and nobody has talked about this, yet, is your credit cards. Starting in a few months, your minimum payment will be going up. The good news: you’ll have it paid off faster. The bad news: It’ll hit your budget to pay more as a minimum payment.

Starting with MBNA, the largest issuer of MasterCards in Canada, August will see a new and higher minimum payment. They will be the first, but not the only ones, to change the way the payment is calculated.

Why? Remember that I always say what happens in the US will come here? Well, their new credit card regulations require a box on your statement to show how long it would take to pay off the balance when making minimum payments. That will happen in Canada this fall, too. So when they increase your payment, the staggering time it’ll take to pay it in full won’t look quite so ugly when you see it in a few months.

The third reason, and it’s a big one, is that our debt load has started to increase the arrears and write offs that card issuers are having. So if they increase your payment, they get paid back faster, and have less risk. But we can also start to look for limits to be cut back for a ton of people in the next wave of clam downs. In the US, $1.5 trillion has been cut from credit limits and they’re not done yet.

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