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Moody's lauds Canada, but cites rising dependence on oil patch Add to ...

These are stories Report on Business is following Thursday, Aug. 16, 2012.

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Moody's lauds Canada
Moody's Investors Service gave Canada a clean bill of health today, though it cited the country's growing dependence on the oil patch.

In its annual report on Canada, the U.S. ratings agency cited a "very high degree of economic resiliency," a strong fiscal standing, and a "low susceptibility" to global events.

Pointing to a diversified economy and high per-capita income, Moody's labelled the country's economic might as "very high," in line with that of the United States, Britain, Germany and Australia.

"Although the recession caused a reversal of the improvement in the debt ratios, they did not deteriorate as much as in most other triple-A-rated countries, are now on an improving trend, and remain compatible with the country's Aaa rating," Moody's said.

"On the public finance front, Canada's ratios of general government debt to GDP and to revenue moved significantly downward over the decade through 2008," it added. "In facing the global crisis, the federal government's balance sheet started from a strong position."

The hot-button issues - housing prices and household debt - don't appear troubling at this point. But a global economic slowdown would hurt Canada because it would drive down oil prices, in turn holding back investment in the oil patch.

Indeed, Moody's cited the "increasing dependence" of the country on its oil sector.

"High oil prices benefited Canada’s oil industry over the past few years," the agency said.

"However, the drop in prices that has taken place in 2012, combined with lower demand in the U.S., could potentially have a significant impact on the growth performance of the economy," it added in the report.

"Oil and gas exports and investments in equipment and infrastructure in the sector contributed to approximately one-fifth of growth in 2010 and 2011. High oil prices led to a rapid pace of spending in the energy sector to increase production. However, with falling prices, the pace of expansion in the sector could slow. Moreover, falling prices could also help the currency weaken, providing a slight advantage to manufacturers. Cheaper gasoline prices will also help consumers, which in turn could have a positive multiplier effect on the economy overall."

Manufacturing sales dip
Canadian manufacturers had a better June than the headline number would suggest.

Overall, manufacturing sales dipped 0.4 per cent, according to Statistics Canada today. But when you strip out oil and coal, sales climbed 1.1 per cent.

The trouble came as sales of petroleum and coal products sank 10.6 per cent, as prices slipped 4.9 per cent and several refineries were shut down.

Sales of such products are now down 23.2 per cent from a March peak, and at their lowest since August 2010, the agency said.

On the plus said, sales of machinery and transportation equipment climbed.

Also affecting today's reading was a revision to the May measure.

"Much of the headline weakness came in petroleum and coal products, on refinery shutdowns and softer prices," said chief economist Avery Shenfeld of CIBC World Markets.

"Autos had a gain, but not a strong as we expected after the export data. Overall, a bit soft, but not stunning given the offsetting revision to the prior month and the impact of prices on the headline tally."

Merkel meets Harper
It's somehow symbolic Prime Minister Stephen Harper gave German Chancellor Angela Merkel a paddle on her visit to Canada. You know, that whole thing about being up a creek?

It's a canoe paddle, by the way, highlighted today on the German government's website.

Obviously, Mr. Harper didn't have a hidden agenda with the gift, and paddles have been given as gifts in the past. But if there's anything Europe needs right now, it is the proverbial paddle.

Ms. Merkel said as much herself, lauding Canada as a model and continuing to press her austerity agenda for the embattled 17-member euro zone.

"This is also the right solution for Europe," she said late yesterday.

That came after Finance Minister Jim Flaherty again criticized the Europeans, saying they "need to do much more" to fight the crisis that has plagued the region for almost three years.

"We have been clear for several years that not only should the European countries take overwhelming concerted action to take control of the situation, but also that the European countries have more than adequate resources to do so," he said.

Barrick in talks on Africa stake
Barrick Gold Corp. is making good on a pledge to shake things up as its new CEO moves quickly on his review of the company's sprawling operations.

The Canadian miner said today it is in preliminary talks to sell its 74-per-cent stake in African Barrick Gold PLC, worth something in the $2-billion (U.S.) range as of yesterday, to China National Gold Group Corp.

As is standard in such statements, it said talks are at an early stage, and may not result in a deal.

Just a few months ago, when he took the job, CEO Jamie Sokalsky pledged a review of Barrick, a move that would put the focus on returns. And, as The Globe and Mail's Pav Jordan reports, Barrick is scrambling to contain overruns on costs, and put its efforts into its main projects.

The company reiterated that today: "Barrick has adopted a renewed focus on maximizing shareholder value through a disciplined capital allocation program which includes optimizing Barrick’s portfolio of assets and maximizing returns on investment and free cash flow."

Barrick and other gold miners, such as Kinross Gold Corp., are trying to boost their lagging stock prices. Like Barrick, Kinross replaced its CEO earlier this month.

Investors are looking for just that, a focus on returns, rather than the amount of gold pulled out of the ground. And analysts have their price targets on the stocks at low levels.

A sale of the African stake could be good value for Barrick, if all goes according to plan.

“African Barrick has always looked like it offered good value albeit at a high risk, and if the potential acquirer can get the asset and is comfortable with the risk, you will be able to get a reasonable set of assets for a good price,” Investec analyst Hunter Hillcoat told Reuters.

Regulator approves MLSE deal
Canada’s broadcast regulator has approved a $1.3-billion agreement by BCE Inc. and Rogers Communications Inc. to buy a majority stake in Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd., but is requiring some adjustments, The Globe and Mail's Rita Trichur reports.

The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission said today that it has given the green light to the transaction, which includes three specialty channels, Leafs TV, Raptors TV and GolTV.

The rival telecommunications giants struck a deal in December to acquire a 75-per-cent stake in MLSE, which owns key sports assets including the Toronto Maple Leafs, Toronto Raptors and the Toronto FC, with an eye to locking up the accompanying television broadcast rights.

Rogers and BCE are each putting up $533-million of cash to buy the stake, with the remainder being financed. As part of that deal, construction tycoon and MLSE chairman Larry Tanenbaum will see his minority ownership stake increased to 25 per cent.

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