Canada's biggest banks accepted tens of billions in government funds during the recession, according to a report released today by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.
Canada's banking system is often lauded for being one of the world's safest. But an analysis by CCPA senior economist David Macdonald found that Canada's major lenders were in a far worse position during the downturn than has ever been previously believed.
Macdonald pored over data provided by the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, the Office of the Superintendent of Financial Institutions and the big banks themselves for his report published Monday.
It says support for Canadian banks from various agencies reached $114 billion at its peak. That works out to $3,400 for every man, woman and child in Canada, and also to seven per cent of Canada's gross domestic product in 2009.
The figure is also 10 times the size of the amount Canadian taxpayers spent on the auto industry in 2009.
"At some point during the crisis, three of Canada’s banks — CIBC, BMO, and Scotiabank — were completely under water, with government support exceeding the market value of the company," Macdonald said. "Without government supports to fall back on, Canadian banks would have been in serious trouble."
During October 2008 and June 2010, the banks combined to report $27 billion in profits on their balance sheets.
Report says mortgages taken off bank balance sheets
One of the most well-known ways in which policymakers helped the banks during the crisis is through a $69-billion CMHC program whereby the housing agency took mortgages off the balance sheets of big Canadian banks. In contrast with other support facilities, all of the funds granted by the CMHC were through selling assets (in this case mortgages) to the housing agency. They were not funds that had to be paid back.
The CMHC has provided the aggregate total of how much was given out, but has yet to release specifics on which banks sold how much to them, and when.
But Canadian lenders also dipped into a program set up by the U.S. Federal Reserve aimed at providing cash to keep American banks afloat. CIBC and BMO took almost $3 billion each out of the fund, RBC and TD took out $8 billion and Scotiabank drew down almost $12 billion, the CCPA report found.
That data came from the U.S. Federal Reserve, which released it publicly. But Macdonald's analysis found that Canadian banks got a comparable amount — $41 billion — from Bank of Canada facilities, an agency that has been far less transparent in sharing the information.
"Despite Access to Information requests for the data, the Bank of Canada refuses to release it," the CCPA report states.
CBA assessing report
"The federal government claims it was offering the banks ‘liquidity support,’ but it looks an awful lot like a bailout to me," says Macdonald. "Whatever you call it, Canadian government aid for the country’s biggest banks was far more indispensable than the official line would suggest.
"The support for Canadian banks was much more substantial than Canadians were led to believe," Macdonald said.
Indeed, the scale of the funding is eye-opening.
At its peak, CIBC received $21 billion in support — almost 1.5 times the value of the company at the time. BMO maxed out at $17 billion or 118 per cent, Scotiabank peaked at $25 billion or 100 per cent of its value, while TD and RBC maxed out at $26 billion and $25 billion — good enough for 69 and 63 per cent, respectively, of the total value of those companies at the time.
"It would have been cheaper to buy every single share in these companies," Macdonald said.
When asked for comment, the Canadian Bankers Association said they had received the report and were assessing it.