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Why Canada's trade figures aren't as bad as they look

A truck crosses the Ambassador Bridge to Detroit from Windsor, Ont., in this file photo from 2011.

GEOFF ROBINS/The Globe and Mail

Taken at face value, Canada's trade performance in March didn't look particularly good.

Exports fell 0.4 per cent for a third consecutive month. Imports dropped 0.6 per cent.

That suggests we're selling less of what we produce, including autos and oil. And we're consuming less. Not good.

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But National Bank Financial economist Krishen Rangasamy offers a more optimistic spin. He points out that the U.S. trade numbers, also released Thursday, bode well for both the Canadian and global economy.

Real or after-inflation imports surged nearly 6 per cent in the United States in March. And imports of consumer goods were even better – up 8 per cent. U.S. consumers, who make up 70 per cent of the economy, are clearly feeling more confident.

"Seventy per cent of the U.S. economy is doing okay," Mr. Rangasamy said in an interview.

That's good for Canada because 70 per cent of our exports go to the United States.

"The ramp up in U.S. imports suggest that demand in the world's largest economy remains healthy, a positive not just for Canadian exporters but for global growth as a whole," Mr. Rangasamy pointed out in a research note.

There are other bright spots in the Canadian trade figures. The country continues to run a small trade surplus – $351-million in March, up from $273-million in February. And the volume of exports (unlike the value) was up 1 per cent.

Over the first three months of the year, imports of machinery and equipment increased at an annual rate of 3.4 per cent, suggesting businesses are taking advantage of the high dollar to retool their plants and invest in technology.

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