Ever since the North American Free Trade Agreement was implemented in 1994, Canada’s economic compass has been pointing south.
But with U.S. oil prices more than $20 below world levels, an American auto market nearly 50% cent smaller, and a broke and dysfunctional Washington that is dependent on the People’s Bank of China for funding, maybe it is time for Canada to think about reorienting its economic compass.
Prime Minster Stephen Harper’s recent trade sortie to Brazil is a step in the right direction but with over 80% of Canada’s merchandise trade still bound for the U.S., Ottawa has its work cut out for it. Shipments to the U.S. are roughly a third of the Canadian economy.
In yesterday’s world of U.S. driven global growth, that trade linkage was the best thing Canada had going for it. But today, that kind of trade exposure to a stagnating, and the debt-ridden U.S. economy is quickly becoming Canada’s biggest liability.
Moving your business away from the U.S. market is now one of the most popular discussions in Canadian corporate boardrooms.
Some industries can reposition themselves better than others. The auto plants operated by Ford, Chrysler and General Motors in Ontario are basically trapped into serving a shrinking U.S. vehicle market (roughly 11.5 million unit sales versus a pre-recession high of more than 17 million vehicles). Fortunately, the motor vehicle industry in Canada, as in the U.S., is less important than it once was. While Canadian trade used to be dominated by the export of autos and parts to the U.S., it is dominated today by exporting what those cars run on: oil.
Oil now accounts for almost half of Canada’s export earnings, and the Canadian dollar, already trading at a premium to the greenback, is behaving more like a petro currency every day. This has made getting full value for energy exports never more important.
Yet you would have to go back to the early 1980s made-in-Canada oil prices during the controversial National Energy Program to see as big a gap between world oil prices and what Canadian oil producers are getting paid for their oil today.
The spread between Brent-based world oil prices and West Texas Intermediate, the land locked American prices based in Cushing, Oklahoma, is over $22 per barrel, and it seems to be getting bigger with every passing month.
That is a huge price to pay, not only for major Canadian oil producers such as Suncor but the Alberta Treasury’s royalty revenue. One of these days, the oil sand producers and their pipeline partners are going to wake up to the fact they are sending their fuel to the wrong market.
It is time Canada started looking for new export markets. And it might want to begin that process with its most important export of all: oil.