* Imports fall by a surprising 3.1 percent
* Canada blames Europe, U.S. economies for falling revenues
* Few see Q3 economic growth meeting Bank of Canada forecast
By David Ljunggren
OTTAWA, Oct 11 Canada's imports in August
dropped by a surprising 3.1 percent from July, suggesting the
Canadian economy is struggling to cope with weak international
markets and slowing domestic demand.
The fall in imports reported by Statistics Canada on
Thursday overshadowed a bigger drop than expected in the trade
deficit, to C$1.32 billion ($1.35 billion) in August from a
record C$2.53 billion in July. Exports slipped by 0.1 percent.
The trade deficit, the fifth in a row, was smaller than the
C$1.90 billion shortfall predicted by market analysts.
The value of imports fell to C$38.79 billion on widespread
declines in every sector except energy, while volumes were down
2.2 percent. It was the largest month-on-month fall in imports
since the 4.4 percent drop recorded in May 2009.
"That's the big story here. The drop in imports was broadly
based and could signal weakness in the domestic economy both in
terms of soft consumption and weak business investment," said
Scotia Capital economists Derek Holt and Dov Zigler.
"That would fit concerns regarding business confidence
heading into a highly active global events calendar including
the U.S. fiscal cliff," they said in a note to clients.
The "fiscal cliff" refers to the combination of spending
cuts set to take effect on Jan. 2 and tax increases that could
seriously dent U.S. growth.
Last week Canada's federal government said its budget
deficit last year was slightly bigger than forecast and blamed
the economic crisis in Europe as well as a patchy U.S. recovery
for a drop in revenues.
Few analysts believe third-quarter growth will be anywhere
near the Bank of Canada's latest forecast of 2.0 percent.
"The slide in imports points to softness in domestic
spending in the third quarter, with the volume of machinery and
equipment imports down at a 10 percent annualized rate so far in
the third quarter, pointing to a pullback in capital spending,"
said Doug Porter, deputy chief economist at BMO Capital Markets.
The Canadian dollar strengthened to a session high against
its U.S. counterpart on Thursday, in part because U.S. jobless
claims fell to the lowest level in more than four years.
The Canadian currency was trading at C$0.9777 to
the greenback, or $1.0228, compared with C$0.9798, or C$1.0206,
minutes before the data was released. Two hours later it was at
the same level.
The gloomy imports data deflected attention from
disappointing export figures. Canada, as a major trading nation,
depends heavily on its export sector.
Exports dropped 0.1 percent to C$37.47 billion. A 0.7
percent decrease in prices offset a 0.7 percent increase in
Exports of industrial goods fell by 6.1 percent, while
shipments of energy rose by 5.5 percent.
"The recent weakness in exports suggests that Canada's
economy may have come close to stagnating in the third quarter,"
said David Madani, Canada economist at Capital Economics.
"What's more, the outlook for fourth-quarter GDP
growth is not a whole lot better given the global slowdown
underway," he said in a note to clients.
Exports to the United States - which took 73.8 percent of
all Canadian exports in August - increased by 1.4 percent while
imports from the United States fell by 4.3 percent.
As a result, Canada's trade surplus with the United States
rose to C$3.48 billion from C$2.02 billion in July, the highest
level since May when the surplus was C$4.61 billion.
Separately, Statistics Canada said the prices of new homes
in Canada rose by 0.2 percent in August, the 17th consecutive
The Canadian government, which imposed tighter mortgage
rules in June, and the Bank of Canada have long expressed
concern that the housing market might overheat. The new housing
price index excludes condominiums, which the government says are
a particular cause for concern.
A new Canadian composite leading indicator, released for the
first time on Thursday, showed a rise of 0.1 percent in August
and suggested Canada will avoid a recession this year.
It was the launch of the indicator by the private-sector
Macdonald-Laurier Institute, which is trying to fill a void left
after government agency Statistics Canada canceled publication
of its composite leading indicator in May.