Posted: 05 May. 2020 5 min. read

International trade falls as lockdown starts, US services industries in decline

As the pandemic unfolded, Canada’s international trade activity dropped sharply in March. Canadian merchandise exports fell close to 5 percent in both value and volume terms. Imports declined 3.5 percent (close to 6 percent in volume terms). Looking at it from a year-over-year basis, both exports and imports were down almost 10 percent. Canada's trade deficit widened from $894 million in February to $1.4 billion in March. While the numbers are bad, we know the impact in April will be more severe, as the full impact of the Canadian and US lockdowns are felt.

From an industry perspective, the transportation sector has been hit hard. The lockdown led to production stoppages in the auto manufacturing industry that triggered strong declines in both exports and imports of motor vehicles and parts. Exports of passenger cars and light trucks decreased by 9.8 percent in March, while imports fell by 6.2 percent. When looking at engines and parts, the drop was more dramatic, with exports dropping 28.9 percent and imports decreasing by 23.0 percent.

Energy exports decreased by 7.4 percent in March. Exports of crude oil were down 7.9 percent on both lower prices as well as lower volumes, reflecting weaker global demand and excessive supply. Exports of refined petroleum products decreased 9.8 percent, mainly due to lower prices as volumes rose in March.

Monthly exports of services decreased 7.2 percent, while imports of services fell 11.5 percent. Keep in mind that trade in services is a small share of overall trade, but it has been a rising share in recent years. However, a defining characteristic of this recession is how hard services have been hit during the shutdown.

Given the health crisis and the focus on issues related to adequacy of essential medical supplies, it is worth highlighting the trends in this category that rarely in the past received much attention.

  1. Exports of medical equipment rose 24.2 percent to $1.3 billion in March. Year-to-date imports of medical equipment and products were down 3.4 percent to $3.9 billion.
  2.  In March, exports of medical diagnostic equipment were up 34.8 percent to reach $134 million. Imports of medical diagnostic products increased by 44.4 percent to $1.5 billion in the first quarter of 2020 compared with 2019—likely attributed to the surge in demand for these types of products by our healthcare system. 
  3. Exports of disinfectants and sterilization products increased by 14.4 percent to $291 million in the first quarter of 2020 in comparison with the same period in 2019. Imports were down 0.8% to $483 million over the same timeframe.

Personal protective equipment exports (PPE) declined 4.9 percent to $535 million year-to-date in 2020. Lower exports to the United States (-$25.1 million) were moderated by an increase in exports to China (+$7.7 million). Imports of PPE declined by 1.9% to $849 million year-to-date compared with 2019. The story may look different in April as the Canadian government committed to ramping up procurement of PPE.

These releases are troubling, as Canada is an export-oriented economy. The April trade data will be key to understanding the full implications of the lockdown on Canada’s trade performance. In addition, there have been company reports suggesting that oil production volumes will have declined further.

In United States, the major economic release was the Institute for Supply Management non-manufacturing index which is based on surveys of more than 400 non-manufacturing (or services) firms' purchasing and supply executives for April. The index dropped 10.7 points to a reading of 41.8. Anything below 50 indicates economic contraction. Only 2 of 18 service industries posted growth—they were public administration and finance.

Economic Insights

A regularly updated snapshot by Deloitte Economics that provides commentary from Chief Economist, Craig Alexander on the latest developments shaping Canadian and international economies including, economic growth, business investment, trade, and market activity. Deloitte analysis gives you the knowledge to tackle the most challenging business issues of today.

Meet the author

Craig Alexander

Craig Alexander

Chief Economist and Executive Advisor

Craig Alexander is the first Chief Economist at Deloitte Canada. He has over twenty years of experience in the private sector as a senior executive and leading economist in applied economics and forecasting. He performed macroeconomic research, regional and sector analysis, and fiscal market forecasting and modelling. Craig is a passionate public speaker and holds a graduate degree in Economics from the University of Toronto.