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Russell Wangersky: Consider the source

With the decline of the economy in St. John’s during the past couple of years, developers and builders began concentrating on more affordable houses, says an official with the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp.
- Stock photo

What do you do when your best source of information is also part of the story?

I’ll explain.

Realtors are where the rubber hits the road in the housing market.

When the federal government brought in a stress test for mortgages, requiring people looking for mortgages to show that they could withstand a significant increase in rates and still afford their payments, it all sounded like a responsible step addressing huge household debt and unsustainably low interest rates.

Reasonable, as long as you’re not talking to buyers who are being turned down for financing on their home ownership dreams.

Realtors are quite blunt about what they’re seeing as a result of the stress test — they’re seeing stress, people literally in tears because they’re being told they can’t get financing.

But there’s another side to that equation, and that’s the problem; the crying couple on the other side of the desk are the people who don’t get to buy a house and, therefore, they won’t be paying the realtor a commission.

It doesn’t make the information invalid — but it colours it.

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Now, I’m not arguing that realtors would not be one of the most informed sources of information you could find; they are steeped in the issue, every single day. They know the ebb and flow of the market, and they deal with people at the ground level.

But it’s a bit like asking realtors about the housing market. Confidence drives that market, and it’s a rare realtor who doesn’t — at least publicly — see virtually any market condition as an opportunity for buyers. Realtors have a stake in every house that sells.

In Newfoundland and Labrador, the province’s public insurance regulator is reviewing automobile insurance costs, and one of the things on the table is imposing a monetary cap on minor injuries. (There’s already a cap of one kind or another in the three other Atlantic provinces.)

I would argue no one knows the ins and outs of the insurance industry like personal injury lawyers; they’ve seen years of the good, the bad and the ugly and they aren’t constrained — as those fully inside the industry are — by having to toe the company line.

The lawyers know how insurance companies will throw money around to halt claims, and how those same insurance firms throw up dizzying piles of conflicting information to hide the fact that they’re pretty much relentlessly profitable, no matter what the rest of the economy is doing.

Personal injury lawyers in Newfoundland and Labrador have formed a group to defend the rights of people who could lose the right to sue for those injuries.

At the same time, those lawyers would be personally affected by a minor injury cap. You’re not likely to sue over an injury, no matter how constant the pain you’re in, if you can only get a few thousand dollars at the end of the whole process.

But how do you point out that personal involvement without tainting the information?

Just because someone has personal interest in the outcome doesn’t make legitimate information inaccurate.

By highlighting the conflict of interest, do you taint that information hopelessly? As soon as you point out something isn’t necessarily 100 per cent altruistic, do you run the risk of having readers stop trusting the information?

But if you ignore it, are you shortchanging those readers?

I mean, we do talk to politicians about other politicians, and we expect readers to know full well that politicians duelling on a particular issue have their own interests in mind, as well as the general population’s.

After more than 30 years in the news business, I still don’t know the right answer.

Russell Wangersky’s column appears in 39 SaltWire newspapers and websites in Atlantic Canada. He can be reached at; Twitter: @wangersky.

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