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Thursday, January 11, 2018

NAFTA Isn't Broken, Yet

By Amy Erixon, Toronto

On a visit to Boston just before Christmas, I noticed that every Christmas tree stand in town was advertising “Evergreen Trees, Fresh from Alberta”.   Given that Calgary is located more than 4,500 km from Boston, I found this very curious.  Don’t get me wrong, Alberta businesses deserve credit for working overtime to diversify their economy, but the point is - there used to be nothing but forests between Calgary and Boston.  Research revealed that due to the deep US led, global recession which began with housing in 2007, tree planting in the US was devastated, and this acute tree shortage is expected to be felt for at least a decade. 

For the past 3 weeks, a natural gas pipeline running from Nova Scotia to Massachusetts kicked into overdrive to keep the lights and heat on in Beantown, pursuant to long term contracts put in place years ago to protect against this risk.  Last weekend the deep freeze got so serious, Boston was forced to pay more than double market rates to bring in Natural Gas from Europe, which according to Bloomberg, some of which might have originated from Russia. 

Without getting into a debate about whether it is self-evident Climate Change is aggravating weather extremes, the obvious takeaway is that global trade serves an important purpose, and is largely working as intended.   Canada, Mexico and the US act as economic stabilizers for one another.  Different policy approaches are part of how this benefit is achieved. 

Oil exports from Canada (by rail) are expected to rise 60% this year, largely due to the US reversing course on development and integration of renewables.  Beyond energy, the recent newsprint and softwood lumber spats well illustrate the dilemma facing Canada and Mexico in the arena of the quickly deteriorating NAFTA negotiations with the Trump administration.   Beginning in April, the US imposed what it hoped, would constitute crippling tariffs against softwood lumber.  This was reported to be designed to achieve two objectives: to demonstrate to Canada how serious the US is about renegotiating NAFTA, and in protest to the Canadian approach to pricing timber based on long term, sustainable, replacement and stewardship management practices rather than spot private market pricing, (the very reason why Canada could provide a reliable supply of Christmas trees).  Canada may not be the most productive place on earth to grow trees, and it too suffers serious losses due to increasingly destructive fires, never-the-less, as a component of the country’s commitment to the Paris accord, trees are being planted on public and private land across the country at an escalating clip.  Planting 100 acres of trees offsets the lifetime carbon footprint of 87 homes, or an 150,000 sf office or shopping center.   Until we do more to improve our building practices, planting trees helps stabilize the weather and protect the planet’s biodiversity.   The Canadian government is considering a plan to allocate an additional $1.5 Billion to conservation this year, and planting much of this area in trees. 

In a record year of natural disasters, from hurricanes to fires, these tariffs could not have been more ill- timed.  Due to a trio of environmental consequences: desertification, pollution and now extreme weather (in the form of forest devastating storms and fires), combined with the 2008 financial crisis, the US has a serious deficit of domestic timber production, and to meet this challenge more than 60% of all Canadian timber production is currently exported to America.  Timber is a commodity with one of the largest trade deficits in the US/Canadian trade relations.  Oil and natural gas are #2 and #3.  Autos, followed by machinery are the largest exports to Canada- high value-add sectors, more than offsetting the timber, oil and gas deficit numbers.   This is how NAFTA is supposed to work:  Americans get commodities at attractive prices and Canadians get high-tech equipment to modernize its factories. 
According to the Toronto Star, "In a move intended to protect the domestic lumber industry, the U.S. this year slapped duties of as much as 31 per cent on imports of timber from Canada, which supplies more than a uarter of what American builders use each year.  Prices surged, increasing costs for American buyers - and boosting profit for Canadian producers.  Shares of Canadian softwood lumber producers Canfor Corp. and West Fraser Timber Co. are outperforming their American peers with gains of more than 40 per cent this year, placing them among the top performers on the BI Global Paper and Wood Products Index.  By contrast, shares of U.S. rival Weyerhaeuser Co. are up about 10 per cent."

Canadian businesses, which lack the economies of scale of their US counterparts, and must absorb the currency volatility, must innovate or look long term to sell products in the US.   Accordingly, the recent move by the Trump administration to punish Canadian pulp and paper producers who supply massive amounts of paper for book publishing in the US as well as nearly all of the newsprint to the likes of the “failing New York Times” and most of the small-town newspapers throughout in the eastern United States, has been recognized by a significant number of US Senators as potentially threatening as many as 600,000 publishing jobs in the United States.   What are the Canadians doing wrong this time, you must be asking?

Most of this paper is coming from Resolute Forestry Products of Quebec and Kruger, Inc and Catalyst Paper Corp of British Columbia.  Contrary to Trump administration claims, these businesses are not being subsidized by the Government.  All three companies operate in Provinces reliant nearly 100% on supercheap hydroelectric power.  In addition, all three companies make vigorous reuse of their biofuel waste material to produce a significant share of their power requirements, via co-gen.  Third, Resolute co-locates their hydroponic farming operations with pulp and paper facilities to ensure zero CO2 emissions by feeding the plants with the paper waste outputs nourishing to plants, enabling them to further lower their cost structure in order to sell newsprint. 

In a break from tradition, these complaints lodged by US companies do not claim Canadian companies are “dumping” - meaning they are selling their product for less than cost.  They are claiming that the Canadians are selling their product for “less than fair value” in the United States.  In other words, the Canadians are not exploiting the wood shortage in the US to gouge longstanding customers.   It appears that the NAFTA negotiators reject the idea that the point of fair trade is designed to reduce costs to American consumers and to ensure the stability of the supply chain for essential commodities, services or products, but rather to ensure the ability of US Corporations to exploit price opportunities created by “spot shortages”.    It is no wonder these talks are getting nowhere. 

NAFTA discussions resume on January 23rd in Montreal.       

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