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Trump’s own economy is hurting his efforts to bring trading partners to heel: Kevin Carmichael

Now that’s how you stand up to a bully!

At the end of May, the Trump administration removed Canada’s exemption from duties on aluminum and steel imports. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland promptly went to the National Press Theatre to announce tit-for-tat tariffs on American imports of metal, beef, coffee and other goods worth a combined total of about $16.6 billion. But it was Canadian exporters who hit President Donald Trump where it hurts most: right in the U.S. trade deficit.

Canada posted its best month of international trading ever in June.

The value of merchandise exports exceeded $50 billion for the first time in June, Statistics Canada reported on Friday. Most of those goods went to the United States, where gross domestic product surged to an annual rate of 4.1 per cent in the second quarter. As the trade wars flared, shipments to the U.S. also set a record, while imports were little changed. Canada’s trade surplus with its American cousins expanded to $4.1 billion, the widest since April 2017.  

Trump will not like that. He reads the monthly export-import data like a box score, and as far as he is concerned the team with the deficit is the loser. Trump demanded a renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement on the premise that deficits with Mexico and Canada showed the U.S. was getting screwed by the deal’s terms.  

But let’s take a break from NAFTA machinations. After all, the data suggest that most Canadian companies have decided to move on.

“I can’t be afraid of this,” Mandy Rennehan, chief executive of Oakville, Ont.-based Freshco, a renovation company, told me in an interview in May when I asked her about U.S. protectionism. “My biggest opportunity right now is in the U.S.”

Those comments didn’t fit the narrative back in the spring.

Export data — always a couple of months behind — was lacklustre. The Bank of Canada said its models showed that business investment would be at least a little depressed by the Trump effect: Uncertainty over trade rules would keep some companies on the sidelines, while others would choose to expand in the U.S. to take advantage of the newly lowered corporate tax rates. Business lobbies added to the anxiety with predictions of capital flight if their calls for lower tax rates went unheeded.

Competitiveness still is an important issue. But data over the past couple of months suggest policymakers in Ottawa and the provincial capitals needn’t do anything rash. The economy is pushing through the headwinds from trade. The central bank felt good enough about the economy to raise interest rates last month. The unemployment rate is low. Investment is decent, if unspectacular. GDP expanded 0.5 per cent in May from the previous month, the most in a year.

All of the world’s major economies have been growing synchronously for a couple of years, creating momentum that is putting upward pressure on commodity prices and revving up animal spirits. Even Canada, a notoriously bashful trader that prefers doing business close to home, is pushing out of its comfort zone: Non-U.S. merchandise exports jumped almost nine per cent in June from the previous month to $13.6 billion, another record.

“Canada’s economy proved more than resilient in the face of newly minted U.S. tariffs,” said Royce Mendes, an economist at Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce.

Those tariffs weren’t entirely unfelt, of course. Steel exports to the U.S. plunged almost 40 per cent, Statistics Canada said, citing customs data that was unadjusted for seasonal trends.

However, aluminum shipments, which faced a smaller duty, dropped only seven per cent after an unusually large gain over the previous few months, Statistics Canada said. And exports still were 10 per cent higher than June 2017. That suggests that outsized U.S. demand could outweigh the dampening effect of tariffs, at least for now. America is a long way from being able to produce the aluminum it needs, and Canada is one of the world’s more competitive suppliers, thanks to favourable electricity rates in Quebec.

The recent experience of the lumber industry could offer a guide. Trump has struggled to impede imports of goods his country badly needs. A red-hot housing market has inflated lumber prices, allowing Canadian producers to easily absorb punitive duties that have been in place since April 2017: Overall exports of lumber and other sawmill products were worth about $1.7 billion in June, a 36-per-cent increase from a year earlier and the most since March 2005.

It’s folly to make too much of one month of data. Higher oil prices and a big increase in sales of aerospace goods influenced the June figures. The trade wars could be messing with normal flows of goods as companies seek to avoid duties.

Yet it seems fairly clear that the strength of the U.S. economy is in fact hurting Trump’s attempts to bring his trading partners to heel. Canada’s exports rose six per cent to $148 billion in the second quarter, the most in a decade. The trade wars are a negative, but at least Canada joined them from a position of economic strength.

•Email: | Twitter: @CarmichaelKevin