If the Toronto real estate market has nine lives, so, too, does its most famous prophet of doom, Garth Turner. Over a 40-year career, Turner has worked as a journalist, a broadcasting entrepreneur, a newspaper chain proprietor, a hotel and restaurant operator, twice as a federal MP (including a stint in Kim Campbell’s short-lived cabinet), a PC leadership candidate, and a financial author and speaker (or, as his critics put it, “seminar shill”). Most Canadians still know him best as the rebellious member of Stephen Harper’s government who was kicked out of caucus in the fall of 2006 for blogging about party business, then crossed the floor to join the Liberals.
Turner, you may be surprised to learn, is also a self-professed real estate junkie who over the years has bought and sold—very profitably—about 50 commercial and residential properties; he moved four in 2011 alone. But as he has watched prices and consumer debt levels soar, especially in Toronto and Vancouver, he has come to see the housing market as a grossly distended balloon that will—any day now—explode, raining debt and misery on the Canadian populace. Each delay to the inevitable reckoning, he argues, more deeply entrenches our delusion that the real estate boom—“the biggest bubble economy in history,” as he puts it—can continue forever, and leads a few thousand more naive young couples to sign five-per-cent-down mortgages on wildly overpriced fixer-uppers in Leaside or Riverdale. “The real estate correction will hurt,” he warns, “and the longer this thing goes before it tips, the more pain there will be.”
His fans gobble it up. His blog, greaterfool.ca, clocked an impressive five million visits last year, and the number keeps growing. Those who comment—the site elicits 50,000 comments a year—tend to be regulars, even addicts, who gleefully offer sentiments like “We are so screwed!!!” He’s written 14 books, most of which are largely devoted to the real estate mania. His speeches—he once gave 200 a year—regularly draw standing-room-only crowds. Last fall, when Turner advertised a speaking engagement in Toronto on his blog, 1,200 people packed an airport Hilton. He relishes the opportunity to meet his readers. “They’re cynics,” he says—people who distrust the MSM (that’s “mainstream media”), and especially what he calls the real estate industrial complex. “They’re a tough room.”
But they do trust Turner—even though he has been unsuccessfully calling for a housing slump for years. In 2008, it looked like he’d nailed it when the release of his book, Greater Fool: The Troubled Future of Real Estate, was followed by a steep drop in prices, including a 10 per cent plunge in the GTA that October. By the following spring, however, we had shaken off the jitters and piled back in, sending home prices higher than ever.
Turner is bound to be right one day—many economists agree on that. In fact, when you look beyond his bluster and often piquant language, Turner seems downright moderate. That’s because he recently entered a new phase in his evolving career, becoming a partner in Turner Tomenson and Associates Family Wealth Management. Now that he’s betting other people’s money on his views, accuracy is much more important, and controversy, long a boon for his career, has become a liability. Self-serving hyperbole and a huckster image could torpedo his newest venture.
There is a striking disconnect between Garth, the online crusader against excessive debt, and the Hon. J. Garth Turner, PC, investment advisor, as his current business card reads. Striding into the boardroom of his dark-wood-and-pleather office in a business park on Yonge Street, just south of the 401, he resembles a small-town lawyer: slightly rumpled suit, shaggy hair, amiable manner. While on his blog he rails about “dumbass [interest] rates” and “the whackjobs in the Tea Party,” here he speaks in measured tones about the importance of diversification and taking a “holistic approach” to your portfolio. But he still indulges in the naughty analogies he knows play well with his public. And, at 62, he seems to find his new job a hoot. “Money is more important to people than sex,” he says with a mischievous smirk, his voice lowered to a stage whisper. “It’s incredible how intimate they feel about their finances. They tell me everything! I’m like Dr. Phil.”
Although he has long been proffering opinions about managing money, he’s only been licensed to advise individuals for less than two years. Wealth manager Scott Tomenson met Turner in March 2010, and decided he could use a business partner with “marketing capability.” That he got: since Turner and his partner launched the firm a year and a half ago, assets under management have grown to $150 million.
People seek him out because they think he tells it like it is, and the first thing on their minds is usually real estate, and whether they should sell. Turner makes one thing clear: there is nothing wrong with home ownership per se. He owns a home in Caledon, a former inn built in 1855 that he and his wife restored at a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars. (He calls heritage properties—“musty old buildings full of mould and creatures”—his personal fetish.) “We all need a place to live,” he observes. “But we have allowed that one asset to overwhelm everything else. All of a sudden, people wake up and 90 per cent of their money is in one thing.”