Canadian companies struggle to plan for post-NAFTA world

A freight train at Manchac, La., about 75 km east of Baton Rouge. (

Toronto | Reuters — Canadian industries that would be most acutely impacted by the death of the North American Free Trade Agreement are unable to meaningfully plan for a possible post-NAFTA world given the uncertainty of what could replace it, analysts and executives said.

With three quarters of Canadian exports landing in the U.S., the terms of that trade are key to Canadian industries ranging from automotives to agriculture, energy and aluminum, as well as the railways and pipelines transporting their goods.

Yet if the U.S. does decide to walk away from the trade deal that tightly links the U.S., Canadian and Mexican economies, a scenario seen as increasingly likely, it is unclear what tariffs might apply to which exports, and what timeline might apply.

“The problem with it is, even if they pull out of NAFTA what comes next and that’s unclear,” said David Tyerman, a transportation and industrials analyst at Cormark Securities. “So you are hitting at a straw man that is not defined at all.”

Without NAFTA, the terms of trade could default back to a bilateral agreement which NAFTA replaced or to World Trade Organization rules, or could be created afresh.

The lack of clarity means that auto part companies such as Magna International, Linamar and Martinrea International have little choice but to focus on delivering existing commitments and winning new contracts, Tyerman said.

“It’s almost like it’s business as usual,” he said. “The parts companies are continuing to win business from the auto makers.”

Aluminum producers in Canada, the world’s biggest supplier to the United States, worry about “collateral damage” from changes that could pinch the flow of Canadian exports, said Jean Simard, CEO of the Aluminum Association of Canada, who said the current system “works beautifully.”

Railway operators may also face lower volumes in the aftermath of a NAFTA breakup, but also need a better sense of how any new rules will affect their customers’ decisions.

“In a worse-case scenario with double-digit tariffs you will still only see incremental change in traffic patterns”, said Rick Paterson, an analyst at Loop Capital Markets who covers companies including Canadian National Railway and Canadian Pacific Railway.

An end to NAFTA would not immediately hurt Canadian grain exporters, since any new tariffs would require Congressional approval. But it could sting exporters and farmers longer term since the U.S. is Canada’s biggest wheat, hog and cattle export market.

The country’s energy industry does not expect tariffs to be imposed on oil and gas exports, said Nick Schultz of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, given that would amount to an additional cost to U.S. refiners, which import three million barrels a day of Canadian crude.

Reporting for Reuters by Alastair Sharp, Susan Taylor and Fergal Smith in Toronto, and Nia Williams and Rod Nickel in Calgary.


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