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In my last blog, I provided an overview of Canada’s economy and demographics. In this blog, I will outline the importance of trade to Canada, and the United States, and then touch on some of the key variables that facilitate the trading process.

Canada has been a major trading nation for many years. Well before NAFTA was signed in 1994, Canada and the United States were major trading partners. As pointed out in the last blog, Canada possesses many raw materials that are in high demand throughout the world. With such a small population, Canada is not able to consume many of the raw materials that it produces. As a result, 58% of Canada’s exports consist of pulp and paper products, energy supplies (i.e. oil, coal and gas), minerals, food products, fish, seafood and fertilizers. By contrast, 38% of Canada’s exports are manufactured goods, primarily machinery, automotive parts, aerospace and aviation products, equipment, chemicals, plastics and information technology. Ontario and Quebec contain the largest centers for manufactured goods. Western Canada is a key producer of coal, grain, oil, natural gas and potash.

Canada – U.S. Trade

NAFTA has just entered its 23rd year. It was designed to expedite the trading process between Canada, the United States and Mexico. There are $750 billion in goods and services traded annually between Canada and the U.S. Exports represent 30% of Canada’s GDP. The United States is Canada’s largest trading partner; it receives 73% of Canada’s exports and 63% of its imports. Canada receives 23% of U.S. exports and 17% of its imports. Canada is largest export market for 35 of the 50 US states.

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On July 1, Canada celebrated its 149th birthday. Just prior to Canada Day, I had the privilege of speaking to a group of industry professionals on the topic of the Canadian freight market during a Stifel conference call. For those of you trying to learn more about America’s neighbor to the north, this and subsequent blogs will capture the highlights from the presentation.

Canada has a population of 36.3 million people, about one tenth the size of the United States and similar in size to the population of the state of California. The majority of the population lives within a 200 mile radius of the US border, the longest unprotected border in the world. About 20 million Canadians live in the major metropolitan locations of Montreal, Toronto, Ottawa, Hamilton, Edmonton, Quebec City, Winnipeg and Vancouver. Canada has the eleventh largest economy in the world.

From a freight perspective, the country can be divided into 4 distinct regions. Each region has its own industries and transportation challenges.

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The 2016 Surface Transportation Summit will take place at the International Centre in Toronto on October 13. The event will be co-hosted by Newcom Business Media and Dan Goodwill & Associates in partnership with the Ontario Trucking Association and the Freight Management Association of Canada. There will be some exciting changes this year.

As always, the conference will be kicked off by a look ahead to the Economy in the year ahead. Carlos Gomes, Senior Economist, Scotiabank will share his overview of 2016 and make some projections for the coming year. For the first time, the Summit will showcase two of North America’s top freight industry investment analysts. Walter Spracklin, Managing Director, Capital Markets, RBC Investment Securities, will offer his insights on the freight transportation industry in Canada. John Larkin, Managing Director of Research, at Stifel Financial Corp., will provide a status report on the current state of the freight industry in the United States.

Wendell Erb, President & CEO, The Erb Group of Companies will provide some commentary on the economy from a trucking company perspective. He will be joined by a Rob Bryson, recently retired Vice-President at Parrish & Heimbecker, who will provide observations and perspectives from a shipper’s perspective.

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This week’s visit to Washington by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, his family and his Canadian delegation was certainly one of the high points in U.S. – Canada relations in many years. It brought back memories of President Reagan and PM Mulroney singing “When Irish Eyes are Smiling” in Quebec City many years ago.

Watching the leaders toast each other and seeing some concrete agreements come out of the meetings was certainly a sign that Canada-US relations are back on a positive track. The fact that President Obama hosted a state dinner for Mr. Trudeau, the first state dinner for a Canadian Prime Minister in 19 years, was a very positive indicator that Canada is back in the good graces of its most important ally and trading partner.

Unfortunately for Canada, Barack Obama is in the last year of his presidency. At this point, the presidential race is pretty much down to four candidates, Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton for the Democrats and Donald Trump and Ted Cruz for the Republicans. As you listen to and study the rhetoric from these candidates, and sense the mood of the American electorate, there is much to worry about.

The Democrats

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There are a host of economic indicators that provide economists, academics and transportation professionals with insights into how the general economy is performing. Data on gross domestic product, imports, exports, housing starts, stock market trends, consumer confidence and unemployment levels are barometers of the level of economic activity in a particular country. These indicators, while somewhat indirect, highlight trends in the economy. Declines in unemployment levels indicate more people are working and as result buying more goods and services. Increases in housing starts suggest that a growing number or people are buying homes, furniture, appliances and carpets. These indices correlate somewhat with freight transportation activity levels. The same applies to other measurements of economic activity.

However, these types of general economic indicators, while helpful, don’t necessarily provide direction as to the specific segments of the economy experiencing the strongest or weakest growth. They don’t shed light on whether there are higher levels of growth in dry van, refrigerated or flat bed traffic.

As a result, transportation professionals need to turn to other indices to understand where the freight industry is going. Some of these measurements are outlined below.

1. ISM Managers’ Index (https://www.instituteforsupplymanagement.org/ )

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As we approach 2016, there are a number of forces that are shaping the economics of Freight Transportation. Here are a few to consider.

The US Economy and the US Dollar

The US economy is providing a number of mixed signals in December of 2015. Unemployment is at only five percent. Economic growth, while sluggish, has been able to generate a consistent 200,000 new jobs a month. But some other indices don’t look so good.

The Institute for Supply Management (ISM) PMI Index of economic activity in the manufacturing sector contracted in November for the first time in 36 months, since November 2012, while the overall economy grew for the 78th consecutive month. The November PMI® registered 48.6 percent, a decrease of 1.5 percentage points from the October reading of 50.1 percent and below the 50 percent mark that signals growth. The New Orders Index registered 48.9 percent, a decrease of 4 percentage points from the reading of 52.9 percent in October. The Production Index registered 49.2 percent, 3.7 percentage points below the October reading of 52.9 percent. Ten out of 18 manufacturing industries reported contraction in November, with lower new orders, production and raw materials inventories accounting for the overall softness in November.

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The 2015 Surface Transportation Summit (www.surfacetransportationsummit.com) will be held at the Mississauga Convention Centre on October 14. We are delighted to report that the event has a new partner, the Freight Management Association of Canada. Here is an overview of the day.

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In President Obama’s State of the Union message that he delivered to a joint session of congress on Tuesday, January 20, he stated that the “shadow of the (economic) crisis has passed” in the United States. The very next day, the Governor of the Bank of Canada dropped interest rates by 0.25 percent “to stave off emerging risks such as weak inflation and a real-estate downturn.” The rate cut, the first by a Group of Seven country in the face of oil prices that have tumbled to about $46 (U.S.) a barrel from $110 last June, caught financial markets off guard. The Canadian dollar plummeted about 1.5 cents to close at 81.07 cents.

This raises a number of questions. First, are the economies of Canada and the United States that different? As two large trading partners that share the largest unprotected border in the world, why has the U.S. signaled that the recession has passed while Canada has highlighted its fears of falling backward into a downturn?

It is interesting that this announcement comes as the manufacturing sector in eastern Canada revs up. Anecdotal evidence from truckers (in eastern Canada) suggests that freight volumes are strong for the month of January, stronger than in prior years. Why make this move and why make it now?

There are two ways to frame the move by Steve Poloz, the Governor of the Bank of Canada. One could look at yesterday’s announcement as an act of desperation, as the sign of a country that blinked first in the face of the challenges facing the energy industry. While we have been receiving hints of increases in interest rates for some time, this action runs contrary to expectations. It may signal a worry, possibly based on early reports of layoffs and cancelled capital expenditures in the energy sector, that the Bank of Canada had to do an “about face” and take dramatic action to counter this potential threat to the economy. Of course, this also signals Canada’s overdependence on energy, that we have two many “eggs in one basket” and that our economy is nowhere near as diversified as the American economy.

Clearly the quick drop in the value of Canadian dollar is unsettling and may not instill confidence in the Canadian government, the BOC, our currency or the Canadian economy. The central bank warned that lower oil prices would take a sizable bite out of economic growth in 2015, delay a return to full capacity and hurt business investment – a trend that has already triggered layoffs and spending cuts in Alberta’s oil-and-gas industry. Canada’s two-speed economy is undergoing a major reversal of fortunes, with the once-booming energy sector fading while the manufacturing sector is rebounding, Mr. Poloz said. Economist David Madani of Capital Economics said that “clearly, [the BoC] is far more worried about a severe housing market correction.”

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