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Nearly nine in 10 Canadian executives worried about U.S.-Canada trade under Trump

The quarterly C-Suite survey was conducted for Report on Business and Business News Network by the Gandalf Group, and sponsored by KPMG. The survey interviewed 151 executives between May 16 and June 12, 2017. Watch for coverage Monday on BNN, and view the full survey online at tgam.ca/csuite.

The longer Donald Trump is President, the more frustrated Canada's executives become.

Nearly two-thirds of Canada's corporate leaders now believe Mr. Trump has done a poor job since taking office, up from 39 per cent a quarter ago, according to the Gandalf Group's latest C-Suite Survey. Nearly 90 per cent, meanwhile, are worried about the implications of politics on trade and trade agreements.

C-Suite: Executives comfortable with low loonie, wary about rate increase

Opinion: Political volatility warrants caution for Canadian businesses

While there's relative comfort at home with low interest rates and the low loonie, executives are now concerned that global political and economic factors might hurt their business. And with North American free-trade agreement talks looming as soon as August, the number of business leaders bracing for major trade changes for Canada has grown – 74 per cent now, compared with 60 per cent in the prior quarter.

Still, the survey – conducted by phone with 151 C-level executives in May and June – offered a few glimpses of smiling, or perhaps smug, Canadianness. Three-quarters of those surveyed found Canada stands to lure skilled talent away from the United States in its current political climate. As for dealing with U.S. tariffs, when forced to choose between supporting in-kind retaliations or responding diplomatically through panels or negotiations, 85 per cent of corporate leaders chose the latter, friendlier option.

As the purportedly pro-business U.S. President enters his sixth month in office, the business leadership in his country's second-biggest trading partner isn't sure how to navigate the course he's setting. "When you have an unknown, you worry," says Tim Granger, president and chief executive of Prairie Provident Resources Inc., a Calgary oil-and-gas exploration and development company.

With the President's team at least contemplating a border adjustment tax, potentially to offset his personal and business income tax changes, the United States would become a more expensive export market for Canadian oil producers like Prairie Provident that already must deal with commodity prices that are based "less on fact and more on emotion."

The President has spent the year's second quarter revealing more of his vision for how America should be run – such as his tax revisions and plans to renegotiate NAFTA – but has yet to announce many details regarding how that vision will be executed or funded. In Canada, this lack of clarity has left executives frustrated across industries.

"There's a lot of noise south of the border, but how much will get done and how much will find support is not known," says Sandy Treagus, chief financial officer of Vancouver's Mountain Equipment Co-op (MEC).

A renegotiated NAFTA would affect supply chains across Canada, including MEC's, which has a wide range of global suppliers. "Even if it's not directly our industry, slowdowns in other sectors because of trade issues will undoubtedly have an impact on our business, or our industry," Mr. Treagus says. "It's just a question of how much."

Even among Canadian companies with flagship projects in the United States, such as the Nova Scotian junior exploration company Ucore Rare Metals Inc., Mr. Trump's protectionist inclinations have yet to bear much fruit.

"We do see his policies as somewhat supportive, although what he's done in particular has not had any effect, and really, what we find is that he hasn't delivered on anything that he's proposed so far," says Mark MacDonald, Ucore's vice-president of business development. "Our confidence that it'll make much difference at all long-term is deteriorating."

Among the Canadian executives surveyed, 46 per cent said Mr. Trump's administration was doing a poor job with economic policy, though a quarter said it's performing well.

The C-Suite's feelings on trade policy are more stark: only 3 per cent think the team is doing well, with three-quarters believing they're doing poorly.

There are few trade issues as unifying in corporate Canada right now as softwood lumber. Nearly nine in 10 executives support protecting the country's interests by fighting the duties averaging nearly 20 per cent that the United States has slapped on softwood as its latest parry in the countries' long-running dispute.

"If you look at the forest sector, it's very important coast-to-coast," says Yvon Rousseau, executive vice-president and chief financial officer of Laval, Que.'s Uniboard Canada Inc., which manufactures wood products including particleboard and luxury flooring. "All Canadians should be worried that we do not have free access to the U.S. market."

Companies like his depend on Canadian sawmills, many of which depend on U.S. markets, too. If the United States continues slapping countervailing duties on softwood, it could set off a trickle-down effect for Canadian companies and consumers.

"The sawmills might at a certain point stop their operations; if they stop their operations, we'll have problems getting our raw materials," Mr. Rousseau says. "Therefore we'll have to go further to get it. That will increase the costs and time of transportation."

With so much uncertainty in the United States, executives are keen to strengthen trade partnerships elsewhere. Nearly 90 per cent of them consider it a priority to both to forge ahead with a Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement without the United States, and to work out a free-trade agreement with China.

"We produce way more than we need," says Willy Kruh, KPMG's global chairman of consumer markets. "We've got to look to the world."

Carolina Gallo, the Montreal-based vice-president of public affairs with ABB Canada, an energy technology company, has a more optimistic position on U.S. trade: with federal uncertainty, companies should get to know individual states. "Where the noise is coming from is not actually where the growth and the actual decision-making is at the end of the day, for economic growth, projects, and investment," she says.

Or perhaps physical trade isn't where companies should focus their expertise. "Our future lies in digital innovation," she says. "Our work spaces are changing, our cities are changing, and the pathways of mobility. So I think for trade, it's got a potentially really positive impact for Canada."

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