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Bank CEOs refocus priorities as Canadians borrow less, turn to saving

TORONTO - Canada's biggest banks say consumers are reaching the limit on how much they can afford to borrow, and that's likely to slow loan growth this year.

Royal Bank (TSX:RY) chief executive Gord Nixon said Tuesday he expects Canadian households will begin to show more restraint.

"In terms of pure consumer lending (growth), we'll probably be operating at a much lower rate than we have been over the last few years," he told a bank industry conference.

"There's no question that the consumer has been leveraged up."

Canadians have taken advantage of low interest rates for years by borrowing record amounts that could leave them vulnerable.

Policy-makers have expressed concern that a sudden rise in interest rates would leave many consumers unable to meet their payments, potentially causing a fallout that ripples through the housing market and consumer spending.

Statistics Canada reported last month that household debt touched an all-time high during the third-quarter of 2013, inching up 0.6 percentage points to 163.7 per cent over the summer months. The increase means Canadians owe nearly $1.64 for every $1 in disposable income they earn in a year.

Nixon said he expects consumer lending growth to remain tight, rising by mid single-digit levels, for "an extended period of time" after several years of double-digit increases.

"What would be the most healthy outcome for the marketplace is for there to be a steady, orderly increase in interest rates to a reasonable level," he said.

A slower increase in the debt levels of Canadians would help shift away from a dependence on the consumer for overall economic growth, said Bank of Montreal (TSX:BMO) chief executive Bill Downe.

He expects U.S. business loans will become a more dominant force in the banking industry this year. BMO could gain a share of that growth through the presence of its Harris bank in the U.S. Midwest.

"We're going to benefit from continued strong commercial and industrial loan growth and I think that's going to spill over into Canada," he said.

Downe said as consumers borrow less they will focus on financial planning, like saving for retirement, which will help grow its wealth management business.

"In essence, it's a shift on the part of the consumer from borrowing and spending to saving and investing," he said.

While Canadians may take on less debt in the future, more of them will be struggling to pay off their overdue bills rather than saving for the long term, a new survey of risk professionals in the financial services industry suggested.

A poll from credit score analysis firm FICO said that 32 per cent of respondents expect that credit card delinquencies will increase over the next six months.

And even balances on accounts that aren't delinquent are predicted to rise, the survey found. About 60 per cent of bankers expect average credit card balances to go up, with nine per cent saying they'll likely go down.

Much of the debt will likely come from unpaid auto loans, which are expected to hit their highest level since the fourth quarter of 2012, FICO said.

"While the delinquency predictions in our survey aren't alarming, lenders will be keeping a close eye on these trends," said FICO chief analytics officer Andrew Jennings in a release.

"Banks are walking a fine line, trying to grow their lending portfolios without taking excessive risks."

The online survey, which was part of a broader poll of North American risk professionals in November, included 82 Canadian respondents.

Scotiabank (TSX:BNS) chief executive Brian Porter said he's comfortable with the credit quality from its customers and doesn't see any major concerns developing in the real estate market either.

"We would view supply and demand relatively in check across the country," he said.

"The one area where we have some little concern is here in Toronto in the condo market."

Toronto-Dominion Bank (TSX:TD) head Ed Clark said low interest rates have pushed housing prices higher and the banking industry should be concerned about the potential for a housing bubble.

"I don't think it's going to collapse, but I do think that if you run a bank, you should be worried." he said.

"It's something we should watch."

TD Bank is staying cautious by turning down unfavourable loan applications that some other banks may approve, he said.

"We have to always lean against these asset bubbles," he said.

The Canadian Press

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