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Some Canadian banks are hiking their variable mortgage rates, seeking to pump up profit margins as it becomes evident that interest rates will remain low for some time to come.

Royal Bank of Canada, the country’s largest bank, kicked off the increases on Tuesday, raising the rates on its five-year variable closed residential mortgages by 0.20 percentage points. As a result, the price of its current special offer rate is now prime minus 0.45 per cent. Bank of Montreal followed suit hours later with a 0.15-percentage-point hike. The prime rate is currently 3 per cent.

The profit margins that banks are earning on variable rate mortgages have become extremely thin. That’s becoming more of a problem for lenders because there are already signs that Canadians are piling back into variable-rate, as opposed to fixed-rate, mortgages. The trend is being fuelled by diminishing expectations that the Bank of Canada will raise interest rates significantly in the near future, expectations that fell further after the U.S. central bank recently signalled it intends to keep rates at rock-bottom levels well into 2013.

The moves by RBC and BMO signal that they are choosing profits over market share. RBC tends to lead the pack on mortgage-rate changes and some other rivals are likely to follow suit. But some might decide to keep rates low with the hope of luring new customers who may eventually lock in to more profitable fixed-rate mortgages.

A spokesperson for RBC said that mortgage rates are tied to the bank’s funding costs, which change from day to day. “Our long-term funding costs have gone up considerably due to global economic concerns, and while we have held off in passing on these rate changes to our clients, it is now necessary for us to increase this mortgage rate,” the spokesperson said.

Alyssa Richards, CEO of Ratehub.ca, said banks tend to move their variable rates higher as they near the end of their fiscal years to help pad their profits and meet targets. With the fourth quarter under way, she said the timing shouldn’t come as a surprise.

“You start to see some tricky stuff going on around this time of year,” she said. “The takeaway for a buyer is that you should probably get a pre-approval if you’re in the market, because they’ll lock you in at a rate for up to 120 days.”

 

Source: Tara Perkins and Steve Ladurantaye, Globe and Mail

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