Canada posts first trade surplus in 22 months, but exports still weak

OTTAWA – Canada posted its first trade surplus in almost two years in October, although analysts were quick to note that the surprise reversal after a string of 22 consecutive deficits did not signal a long-awaited turnaround in the export sector.

The tiny $75 million surplus from a revised $303 million deficit in September was achieved primarily because of a 1.2 per cent decline in imports, Statistics Canada said Wednesday.

In fact, exports continued to struggle, dropping 0.3 per cent — 0.6 per cent in volume terms — during the month, as shipments of energy products, motor vehicles and parts, metal and non-metallic mineral products and aircraft and other transportation equipment and parts all fell.

“(It is) one of these good headline, weak details reports,” said Jimmy Jean, a senior economist with Desjardins Capital Markets.

“The data points to weakness in manufacturing activity during the month… (and) indications pertaining to business investment are rather weak.”

The report came out on the same day that the Bank of Canada cited the weak performance of the Canadian export sector, along with low inflationary pressures, for its gloomy view that the economy won’t return to full production capacity until the latter half of 2015.

However, there were some encouraging signals in the report.

TD economist Leslie Preston pointed out that on a year-over-year basis, total exports are up a healthy 5.3 per cent, and exports to the U.S. are up almost 10 per cent.

“While the path towards more export-oriented economic growth has been disappointing thus far, today’s data is consistent with net exports making a stronger contribution to growth from here on in,” she said.

That is what the Bank of Canada is counting on. In its interest rate announcement report Wednesday, it noted that the U.S. — which takes in about 75 per cent of Canada’s exports — is showing signs of recovery.

Still, analysts said the immediate outlook was not as bright. The October performance will act as a drag to Canadian economic growth in the final, fourth quarter of 2014. Still, most see the final three months of the year posting two per cent-plus growth.

Overall, exports dipped to $40.5 billion in October and imports to $40.4 billion.

Exports to the U.S. rose 0.2 per cent to $30.4 billion, while imports from south of the border grew one per cent to $26.5 billion.

Exports to other countries slipped 1.7 per cent to $10.1 billion, while imports fell 5.1 per cent to $13.9 billion.