Yes, the Donald Trump presidency is going to be bad. Yes, it might be a disaster. But it won't necessarily be a disaster for Canada.
Consider Canada-U.S. trade. President Trump talks like he believes global trade is a form of war, and every day he threatens to start one. Canada is an exceptionally trade-dependent economy, and almost all of our trade is with the United States. Many of our industries have integrated, cross-border production chains. If President Trump wages trade war against any and all imports, Canada is going to suffer catastrophic collateral damage.
But much more likely, as Blackstone CEO and Trump economic adviser Stephen Schwarzman told Canadian government officials on Monday, is that the President will go after countries running big trade surpluses. That means China. It also means Mexico, which Mr. Trump consistently portrays as a stealer of jobs and exporter of illegal aliens. As a result, NAFTA is almost certainly doomed.
But if NAFTA disappears or is sent into the limbo of renegotiation, the earlier Canada-U.S. free-trade agreement still stands, and still protects much (though not all) of Canada's trade access. Given that Canada-U.S. trade is relatively balanced – Canada runs a small trade surplus with the U.S. when oil prices are high, and a deficit when they're low – it's unlikely that the Trump administration is going to want to make Canada a priority target.
Visibly steamrolling the Mexican economy will be popular with many voters from both parties. Ditto a trade fight with China. But attacking Canada? There's no economic logic to it. Nor would there be much domestic political upside in starting a trade war with the place Americans consistently call their most admired foreign country.
Bottom line: The end of NAFTA is not a good thing. However, if the Trump administration stops there, it would mean a big hit for Mexico, but a relatively small hit for the Canadian economy.
Or consider the possibility of the U.S. introducing some kind of tax or tariff on all imports. The details are sketchy, but both the Republican-led Congress and the Trump administration have been talking about this. The Canadian oil industry is particularly worried, since the U.S. is by far its largest export market. In 2015, Canada exported 3.2 million barrels a day south of the border.
But that means U.S. consumers are also highly dependent on Canada: More than a third of the oil Americans consume is imported, and nearly half of those imports come from Canada. A tax on oil imports would spell higher prices at the pump for U.S. drivers. Would the anti-tax Trump administration and the anti-tax Republican Congress really antagonize their base by doing that? It's not likely.
The U.S. may end up imposing a tax on many imported goods. But it's hard to imagine oil not getting some kind of exemption. It's also likely that much or all Canadian trade could be exempted, because of the FTA and that nearly-balanced trade relationship.
Yes, an American tax on imports would be bad for the global economy. But unless the Trump administration is insistently self-destructive, and aims to hinder all trade with even its largest and most integrated trading partner, the direct impact on Canada of any such tax stands a good chance of being small.
And Trump policy may even have some positives for Canada. There's Keystone XL, and the Trump administration is also promising to deliver a massive income and business tax cut, combined with a big infrastructure program. (A minus for Canada? It will almost certainly include Buy America provisions.) The details are fuzzy, and U.S. voters should have serious doubts. There's a good chance most of the benefits will end up going to the 1 per cent.
But in the short run at least, even unfair tax cuts, plus badly designed infrastructure spending, would be stimulative. The U.S. economy would get a temporary boost. However, given that the U.S. economy is already operating close to capacity, in the long run the approach is likely to end in tears, generating a painful combo of huge deficits and an asset price bubble.
In the short term, however, it could mean a hotter U.S. economy, and maybe even a stronger U.S. dollar, both of which are positives for Canadian exporters.
If the administration's bite is applied with slightly more discrimination than its bark, Canada stands a chance ending up with only minor injuries, while witnessing an American disaster from the best seats in the house.