Canadian businesses have sometimes struggled to capitalize on China's vast economic promise.
A report being released Monday by the Canadian Chamber of Commerce concludes that one way to gain a quick trade edge would be for Canada to establish a renminbi hub – a local financial centre sanctioned by China to clear and settle transactions in the Chinese currency.
"Chinese companies prefer trading in their own currency," pointed out Perrin Beatty, the chamber's president and chief executive. "We strongly believe that Canadian companies could sell more to China and potentially offer lower prices to Canadian consumers if they were able to do business in renminbi."
The report calculates that establishing a renminbi hub -- likely in Toronto or Vancouver – could boost Canadian exports to China by as much as $32-billion and save importers $2.8-billion in transaction over 10 years.
Ottawa has been quietly lobbying China to make Canada the first authorized renminbi clearing centre anywhere in the Americas.
Finance Minister Joe Oliver is expected to raise the issue again with Chinese authorities at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Beijing next month, although officials are playing down expectations of an imminent deal.
The campaign has the backing of the Canadian Bankers Association as well as industry umbrella groups in Toronto and Vancouver.
The chamber's report says Canada has a "unique, once in a generation opportunity for Canada's businesses and banks to leap ahead of competitors and become early adopters" of the world's fastest growing currency.
"It would really build our bridges to China and take the relationship to the next level," added Hendrik Brakel, senior director and economist at the chamber.
Right now, doing business in renminbi is difficult and costly, and offers limited ability to hedge currency risk. Canadian banks must clear and settle transactions through their subsidiaries in cities where there are renminbi hubs, such as London or Singapore. They must often first convert from Canadian dollars into U.S. dollars, and finally into renminbi.
All that can add as much as 1 per cent to transaction costs, according to the chamber report, which identified forestry, agriculture, mining and aerospace as the export sectors most likely to benefit from dealing directly in renminbi.
"One of the great benefits to Canadian companies is that you get rid of all the headaches in dealing with third currencies," pointed out Todd Winterhalt, vice-president of international business development at Export Development Canada. In often thin-margin trade deals, "every little bit helps," he said.
Establishing a hub in Canada, rather than the United States, would be "a benefit in real terms" as well as a "political driver" of Canada's relationship with China and an endorsement of the country's sound banking system.
But John Curtis, former chief economist at the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade and now an adjunct professor at Queen's University, said the benefits may be more "symbolic" than substantive. He suggested it would offer only a marginal boost to trade.
Establishing a hub in Canada requires the blessing of Chinese authorities plus a currency swap agreement between the People's Bank of China and the Bank of Canada. A clearing bank in Canada would also have to be designated – likely the Canadian subsidiary of one of the four large state-owned Chinese commercial banks, such as the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China or the Bank of China.
In recent months, China has approved hubs in London, Frankfurt and Seoul to go along with existing centres in Singapore and Hong Kong. It has also been signed agreements with Paris and Luxembourg. Twenty-five other countries already have currency swap agreements with China.
The use of the renminbi in trade finance – traditionally done in U.S. dollars – is growing rapidly, reaching 8.7 per cent of global transactions at the end of 2013, up from less than 2 per cent in January, 2012, according to the Chamber's report.