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HRAI3 02202019

Over the past year, aluminum and steel tariffs, the China-US trade war and Huawei tussle, Brexit, the uncertainty of NAFTA 2.0 ratification by the US Senate, and generally increasing global protectionism have created some anxiety for business executives.

PLANT Magazine’s annual Manufacturers’ Outlook survey for 2019, conducted in partnership with Grant Thornton LLPSYSPRO Canada and the Italian Trade Commission shows concerns are rising.  This survey has been conducted for many years, with year-to-year comparisons showing relative changes in business confidence.

This year’s survey conclusions are based on 501 replies from senior manufacturing executives. About 39% are ‘very optimistic’ about the coming year, and a majority think their sales orders and revenues will both increase. However, this number represents a notable decrease from 44% in 2018.  Further, fully 65% of executives said US protectionism is ‘very worrying,’ compared with 54% taking this view one year ago.

The aluminum and steel tariffs were expected to be lifted once NAFTA 2.0 was signed, but the US senate has not yet ratified it, and there are reports of opposition from both Democrat and Republican Senators. At the same time the World Trade Organization (WTO) is investigating whether the initial U.S. tariffs and the retaliatory tariffs imposed by Canada and other countries broke the rules. Some reports have suggested that actual tariff impact has not been felt much as yet but, according to the Conference Board of Canada, 85 per cent of Canada’s steel and aluminum exports are destined for the United States, and are valued at about $24 billion.

There are also worrying developments with other key Canadian partners. Trade disputes between the US and China have been complicated by Canada agreeing to arrest and extradite to the US Huawei company leader Meng Wanzhou. China has threatened Canada with ‘consequences,’ which, if implemented, could be damaging. In 2010 China banned salmon from Norway after it awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to Chinese human rights activist Liu Xiaobo.

Brexit is also creating uncertainty. The UK is Canada's third largest export goods market and second-largest services export market. If the economy in the UK weakens, it could affect Canada economically. Canada has signed the CETA trade agreement with Europe, and like NAFTA 2.0, it has not yet been ratified by European parliaments.

Despite all the doom and gloom, the PLANT Magazine survey found executives were generally thinking positively about prospects for the coming year, with 55 percent expecting sales to increase by about 12 percent on average, and about one-third expecting profit increases of about 11 percent.