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Statistics Canada Revises Household Debt Numbers, And The News Is Not Good

Even the previous estimate was already enough to make Canadians the most indebted people among G7 countries.

Statistics Canada has just given the country's policymakers a new headache, with news that it had previously underestimated Canadians' debt burden.

In a release Friday, the statistical agency said the average Canadian household carries $1.74 in credit market debt for every dollar of disposable income. That includes credit cards, car loans and mortgages, among other things.

Prior to the revision, that number was around $1.69, already enough to make Canadians the most indebted people among G7 countries.

Watch: Why are mortgage rates going up now? Story continues below.

But the revision doesn't mean Canadians are carrying more debt than previously thought rather, Statistics Canada had overestimated how much income households have with which to pay that debt.

"The ratio of credit market debt to disposable income ... was impacted by a downward revision to household disposable income in 2016," the agency said in a note released Friday.

"This revision was due to the incorporation of information received from the latest T4 tax filings. It resulted in an upward revision to the ratio."

"As a result, household debt burdens still remain a crucial vulnerability for the Canadian economy," Bank of Montreal economic analyst Priscilla Thiagamoorthy wrote in a client note.

Thiagamoorthy noted that debt payments are now taking the largest bite out of Canadians' paycheques since 2008.

The news comes as Canadians face rising interest rates on their debt. The Bank of Canada has hiked its key lending rate five times in the past year-and-a-half, and the markets are pricing in another rate hike early next year.

However, some disappointing reports on Canada's economy in recent weeks have many speculating that bank governor Stephen Poloz could slow down the rate hikes that are meant to keep Canada's economy from overheating.

Tough choices for Bank of Canada

And the news that Canadians are carrying more debt, relative to income, than previously thought places further pressure on the bank to hold off on rate hikes.

With house price growth cooling off and a new mortgage "stress test" reducing the maximum consumers can borrow, household debt growth in Canada has slowed down this year, and is now growing at the slowest pace in 35 years.

Statistics Canada's latest numbers show that, had it not been for the revision, this would have been the third quarter in a row that household debt declined in Canada. However, the debt burden is still slightly higher than it was a year ago.

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