BUSINESS

China's Market Woes Could Be Chance To 'Reset' Canadian Economy

08/25/2015 08:30 EDT | Updated 08/25/2016 05:59 EDT
China's staggering economic growth has been, in many ways, a boon for Canada.  

Put simply, China need lots of the things we have to offer like wood, metals, and potash. It also has a voracious appetite for oil. While we still send the vast majority of our oil south, China's consumption had in part kept oil prices high, which benefitted our resource-based economy.  

Yesterday's stock plummet in Shanghai, however, could further rattle already struggling commodities markets - ultimately hitting at Canadian producers.  

The sell-off and ensuing market chaos was also an indication that doubts remain about China's ability to maintain its projections for growth amid historic internal reforms that could considerably lower demand for many of the things Canada is offering.  

"We are a commodities producer that relies on global economic growth and for the past 10 years or so that growth has come largely from China," says Ian Nakamoto, director of research at the Toronto investment firm MacDougall, MacDougall & MacTier.  

Throughout the 2000s, that growth coincided with a nationwide construction boom. The government poured money into infrastructure projects like high-speed rail, sprawling industrial parks and vast new roadways, formerly rural outposts developed into bustling urban centres.    

But the focus and capital has now shifted from fuelling a commodities-dependent economy to establishing a consumer-driven one.  

"It's an impetus for Canadian policymakers and industries to rely less on commodity growth and put the emphasis on other sectors," says Nakamoto.   

Indeed, commodity prices are down across the board. The Economist magazine reported last week that the prices of all major commodities have fallen between 10 and 20 per cent this year, heralding the end of a so-called super-cycle that began in 2000.  

'Already under pressure'  

While it's unclear how this week's sell-off in China will ultimately impact commodity prices, the lack of transparency surrounding what further mitigation measures the Chinese authorities might take is not doing much to assuage market fears.   

"Commodities are already under pressure, even before the uncertainty in with Chinese stocks. It's really not new," says Nakamoto.   

"But there will be a price point where more producers will have to shut down some operations and scale back their capacity."  

That said, China remains the world's second largest economy and hopes to maintain seven per cent annual growth - though whether it will achieve that number is up for dispute - considerable growth by most measures. There are hundreds of millions of people in China who still live in poverty, and ambitious infrastructure projects remain on the government's agenda.  

"This doesn't mean there will be a complete downturn in the commodity trade with China," says Peter Dungan, an economist at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto.   

"China still need to fuel its power plants, it still needs wood and steel to build new things like hospitals and office towers ... There is still an appetite for resources."  

'Out of the shadows'  

The global fall in commodity prices, particularly oil, has precipitated a drop in the value of the Canadian dollar, which sank to an 11-year low of 75.27 US cents by the close of trading on Monday.   

A low Canadian dollar certainly presents "a challenge in the short run," but it could prove an opportunity to "hit the reset button" on the Canadian economy, says author Jeff Rubin, a former chief economist at CIBC World Markets, adding that "we've become hugely skewed to the resource sector in a fashion that is really unprecedented."  

Until recent drops in value, the high dollar -- which was tied to the high price of oil and other commodities -- forced manufacturing jobs outside of Canada to countries like Mexico. A CBC News investigation published in July, for example, reported that an internal federal government report found that since 2004 more than 300,000 manufacturing jobs had been lost in Ontario and Quebec alone.   

As in previous decades, a low dollar could encourage the resurgence of sectors hit hard by the focus on resource exploration and extraction.  

"A whole range of industries that have been inversely affected by the exchange rate and focus on the resource-based economy are going to come out the shadows," he says, adding that he believes the Canadian dollar will stabilize around 70 US cents and hover around that value for the foreseeable future.   

​"The revitalization in these sectors obviously won't happen overnight, but there will be traction after a few years."