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Canadian debt levels hit another record high

Canadian households added to their debt load in the third quarter, pushing the debt-to-income ratio to a record high of 164.6 per cent. That figure is up from 163.3 per cent in the previous quarter, Statistics Canada said on Thursday.

These figures come as the Bank of Canada continues to signal that personal debt remains the top domestic threat to the stability of the financial system, outlined in a fresh report last week. At the same time, Bank of Canada boss Mark Carney said this week Canadian are being more careful with borrowing.

What gives?

Even while the figure is high and exceeds the peak of U.S. debt levels before the economy there tanked, the numbers are deceiving.

"The level of this ratio can be viewed as concerning given that it is above the 164 per cent reached in the U.S. at onset of the credit crisis," wrote RBC economist David Onyett-Jeffries.

"However, differences in the methodology used to calculate this measure in Canada and the U.S. make this comparison invalid ... the more comparable measure for Canada is 153 percent in Q3/12. This is historically elevated but is still below the U.S. peak."

That is somewhat comforting, but there's more behind why officials suggest there are signs consumers may be cooling the rate at which they borrow: the rate of debt growth is slowing down compared to previous years.

Debt growth levels are up 5.4 per cent in last year, but that figure is lower than last year's growth rate level at 6.4 per cent, said Doug Porter, deputy chief economist at BMO Capital Markets.

"We're heading slowly but surely in the right direction. We're not quite there yet and we won't be there until household debt is growing slower than income," he said. Porter says he expects that debt figure to continue climbing, possibly into 2014.

"I wouldn't be surprised if it continues to rise through next year. I wouldn't be shocked. It might not be until 2014 that we see it stabilize," he said.

As for the comparison to the U.S., the focus should be on the lending standards.

"I don't think there's a magic number here. I think what really matters is who has that debt and how willing and able they are to pay it back," said Porter.

Mortgage debt rose $18.4 billion to $1.1 trillion, but climbed at a slower pace than in the previous quarter. Consumer credit levels reached $474 billion in the third quarter versus $467 billion in the second quarter, Statistics Canada said.

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