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Canada Achieves Foreign Trade Gains; U.S. Still Sinking

Alex Carrick
Canada Achieves Foreign Trade Gains; U.S. Still Sinking

Canada’s foreign trade picture brightened considerably in June. The nation’s merchandise trade balance recorded its biggest surplus since before the 2008-2009 recession. Furthermore, there have now been four surpluses in the past six months. During the decade prior to this year, Canada’s monthly goods trade balance spent a lot of time below the zero x-axis (Graph 1).  (‘Merchandise’ trade is a fancier way of saying ‘goods’ as opposed to ‘services’ trade.)

Canada Achieves Foreign Trade Gains; U.S. Still Sinking Text Graphic

Giving a huge helping hand to Canadian trade, at present, is the pickup in the world economy, which is giving a boost to commodities demand and prices. For the construction sector, there’s a crucial counterbalancing aspect to higher commodity prices. Commodities (or raw materials) are the crucial building blocks of all construction materials (e.g., copper in wiring; iron ore in structural and rebar steel). Therefore, rising resource prices will lift construction input costs.

But there’s another aspect to consider. Higher prices for their extraction output are an incentive for resource owners to undertake expansion expenditures, historically accounting for some of the largest construction projects anywhere.

What Really Makes Canada Tick

A goods trade surplus makes a direct positive contribution to a country’s gross domestic product. Exports minus imports (X-M) is a line item in GDP.

Graphs 2 through 12 highlight a key factor in what enables the Canadian economy to function successfully. This is a truth that is often overlooked or brushed aside these days, when the focus instead is on high-tech work or the ‘greening’ of the environment.

Graphs 2 through 12 show the history of exports minus imports in eleven resource product areas. There’s only one instance where Canada doesn’t have an advantage in exports compared with imports, refined petroleum products. Outgoing and incoming trade in gasoline and other fossil fuel derivatives (as opposed to crude oil and natural gas) is about even (Graph 4).

Also, Canada no longer has the outsized trade lead in natural gas that it once had, due to U.S. capacity expansions tied to new fields made possible by hydraulic fracturing.

But in all other cases, Canada is running a surplus, and the X-M discrepancy is particularly large for crude oil (Graph 2), iron ore (Graph 7), copper (Graph 8), potash (Graph 11), aluminum (Graph 12), and forestry products (Graph 13).

The recent price gains for these commodities have been documented previously by ConstructConnect in the article Little Letup in U.S. and Canadian Construction Material Cost Increases. But it bears repeating that continuing commodity price strength will contribute significantly to Canada’s GDP growth and will be a spur to investment (a.k.a., construction) out in the sometimes-not-so-accessible field.

Plus, there’s another big construction implication to consider. The need for infrastructure spending has become a hot topic these days. In all the discussion about where the emphasis should be placed, let’s not forget improvements to the rail carrier systems and the port cargo handling and border crossing facilities that expedite the outwards flow of Canada’s resource bounty.

Pipeline construction should also be mentioned, but that subject has become so contentious, only elected politicians, working with indigenous groups, and turning for guidance from the courts, will have a shot at sorting out the direction to be taken.

U.S. Foreign Trade in Steep Slide

Near the end of this article is Graph 13 showing the U.S. foreign trade position in goods and services combined. In June, there was a shortfall of -$910 billion USD, made up of -$1,118 billion in goods and +$208 billion in services. The ‘goods’ X-M gap has sailed well past minus a trillion dollars and in June was at an all-time negative record.

This is unlikely to be sustainable. There are three solutions, none of them palatable: (1) higher interest rates to bring in more foreign investment (upping the capital account to offset the current account in the Balance of Payments); (2) more import restrictions through tariff or equivalent measures; and (3) a decline in the value of the greenback.

Interestingly, the share of America’s trade deficit originating with China has fallen significantly, from about 50% or half just a few years ago to a current proportion that has dropped under 30%. But some surprising other countries (e.g., Switzerland with a 5.5% share; Ireland, 5.3%) have stepped into the ‘void’.

Graph 1: Canada’s Foreign Trade: The Merchandise Trade Balance − June 2021

Traditionally, Cdn exports going to the U.S. have been 3/4 of total; with imports from the U.S. at 2/3 of total. In June 2021, exports followed their usual pattern, at 73.9%,  but imports fell a bit short, 62.1%. Purchases from China were 8.3% of total Cdn imports.

The last data point is for June 2021.
Based on seasonally adjusted monthly figures, projected at an annual rate.

Data source: Statistics Canada.
Chart: ConstructConnect.

Graph 2: Canada’s Foreign Trade in Crude Oil & Crude Bitumen

For more than a decade, Canada has managed a strong surplus in the trade of crude oil. The dollar volume of Canadian oil exports is many times (i.e., currently 8x) the value of natural gas exports.

The latest data points are for June 2021.

Data source: Statistics Canada.
Chart: ConstructConnect.

Graph 3: Canada’s Foreign Trade in Natural Gas

Canada's earlier big advantage in the trade of natural gas with the U.S. has largely dissipated due to the emergence of large hydraulic fracturing capacity south of the border. Moving forward, Canada's best prospects for gas exports probably lie in LNG projects on both coasts.

The latest data points are for June 2021.

Data source: Statistics Canada.
Chart: ConstructConnect.

Graph 4: Canada’s Foreign Trade in Refined Petroleum Product

Most of Canada's refined petroleum exports are shipped out of Irving's Saint John, N.B., refinery.

The latest data points are for June 2021.

Data source: Statistics Canada.
Chart: ConstructConnect.

Graph 5: Canada’s Foreign Trade in Electricity

Canada has almost entirely shifted to no carbon or low carbon emitting sources of electric power generation. Many U.S. states are still heavily into thermal coal. New reversible transmission lines are being built north-south from Manitoba, Ontario & Quebec, so the opportunities for net export gains are clear.

The latest data points are for June 2021.

Data source: Statistics Canada.
Chart: ConstructConnect.

Graph 6: Canada’s Foreign Trade in Coal

Thermal coal-fired electricity in Canada is being eliminated. But Canada is still an important exporter of the metallurgical coal used in steelmaking, with mines in the provinces of B.C. and Alberta being the major sources and Teck Resources being one of the largest international suppliers.

The latest data points are for June 2021.

Data source: Statistics Canada.
Chart: ConstructConnect.

Graph 7: Canada’s Foreign Trade in Iron Ore

Most of the iron ore in Canada is mined along the Quebec-Labrador border. Nunavut also accounts for some production. (Rio Tinto is the major shareholder of Iron Ore Company of Canada.)

The latest data points are for June 2021.

Data source: Statistics Canada.
Chart: ConstructConnect.

Graph 8: Canada’s Foreign Trade in Copper

The two major copper producing provinces are British Columbia and Ontario. Further back in terms of output are Manitoba, Quebec and Nfld/Labrador.

The latest data points are for June 2021.

Data source: Statistics Canada.
Chart: ConstructConnect.

Graph 9: Canada’s Foreign Trade in Nickel

Ontario is number one for nickel production, but the names of the grand oil giants in the industry, Inco and Falconbridge, have given way to Vale and Xstrata/Glencore. Quebec & Nfld/Labrador (Voisey's Bay) are other nickel producing provinces. Manitoba is far back in fourth spot.

The latest data points are for June 2021.

Data source: Statistics Canada.
Chart: ConstructConnect.

Graph 10: Canada’s Foreign Trade in Gold, Silver & Platinum

Ontario is number one for gold production in Canada, with Quebec not far behince. British Columbia ia a distant third. The nation's major players are Newmont (acquired Goldcorp) and Barrick.

The latest data points are for June 2021.

Data source: Statistics Canada.
Chart: ConstructConnect.

Graph 11: Canada’s Foreign Trade in Potash

Nutrien, formed through the merger of Potash Corp of Saskatchewan and Agrium, is Canada's largest producer. All output comes from Saskatchewan; mining in New Brunswick has been terminated.

The latest data points are for June 2021.

Data source: Statistics Canada.
Chart: ConstructConnect.

Graph 12: Canada’s Foreign Trade in Aluminum

Aluminum production in Canada is concentrated in Quebec (Sept-Iles region) and British Columbia (Kitimat). The biggest companies in the field are Rio Tinto Alcan & Alcoa Corporation.

The latest data points are for June 2021.

Data source: Statistics Canada.
Chart: ConstructConnect.

Graph 13: Canada’s Foreign Trade in Lumber & Other Sawmill Products

Among provinces, B.C. is Canada's large forestry product exporter. Quebec and Ontario are also major producers. Proportionally, the forestry sector is especially important to the economy of New Brunswick. The two major Canadian woodlot companies are West Fraser Timber & Canfor.

The latest data points are for June 2021.

Data source: Statistics Canada.
Chart: ConstructConnect.

Graph 14: United States’ Foreign Trade: Goods and Services Balance − June 2021

In June 2021, the U.S. trade deficit increased (i.e., worsened) by +6.7% month to month and +49.6% year over year.

The last data point is for June 2021.
Based on seasonally adjusted monthly figures, projected at an annual rate.

Data source: Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA).
Chart: ConstructConnect.

Graph 15: Geographic Sources of U.S. Total Foreign Trade Deficit in Goods – June 2021

Several years ago, China routinely accounted for as much as 1/2 of America's total foreign trade deficit each month. Since then, China's share has dropped significantly. In the latest month (June 2021), for the first time since early in the 2008-2009 recession, China's share fell below 30% (to 29.2%).

Data source: U.S. Census Bureau and Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA).
Chart: ConstructConnect.


Alex Carrick is Chief Economist for ConstructConnect. He has delivered presentations throughout North America on the U.S., Canadian and world construction outlooks. Mr. Carrick has been with the company since 1985. Links to his numerous articles are featured on Twitter @ConstructConnx, which has 50,000 followers.

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