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Trade confidence among domestic exporters fell to its lowest level in nearly a decade, Canada’s export credit agency said on Tuesday, as businesses wrestle with protectionist policies and fret about the global economy.

In its biannual survey of 1,000 Canadian exporters, Export Development Canada said its trade confidence index fell to 69.3 per cent – the lowest level since 2012 and six percentage points below the survey’s historical average.

“The results, an eight-year low in confidence, suggest a soft start is likely for Canada’s exports in 2020,” Stephen Tapp, EDC’s deputy chief economist, said in a statement. “Protectionism and concern about the global economy are key issues weighing on the minds of Canadian exporters.”

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Thirty per cent of exporters polled said protectionism was affecting their global strategies, while nearly 90 per cent said they expected protectionism to either stay the same or increase in 2020, the survey found.

“Trade barriers are now the No. 1 challenge, cited as a bigger problem than perennial issues, like finding skilled talent, logistics and financing,” Mr. Tapp said.

Meanwhile, 34 per cent of respondents said they had been negatively affected by the U.S.-China trade dispute.

The national telephone survey of small, medium- and large-sized companies was conducted between Nov. 18 and Dec. 15, before the United States and China agreed to an initial Phase 1 trade deal in mid-January.

Closer to home, more than three-quarters of respondents told EDC they expect United States-Canada-Mexico Agreement to be ratified. The pending trade deal will update the North American free-trade agreement. Only 16 per cent of respondents expressed a negative assessment of the deal, down from 34 per cent in the previous survey, EDC said.

Canada, which sends about 75 per cent of its goods to the United States, is the only one of the three signatories to not have formally blessed the USMCA deal. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, whose minority Liberal government no longer controls the House of Commons, has urged Parliament to ratify the deal quickly.

Mr. Tapp said both the initial Phase 1 trade deal between China and the United States as well as the expected ratification of the USMCA “will reduce trade uncertainty and provide a welcome reprieve for Canadian exporters.”

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