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Auto sector collapse pushes trade with U.S. and Mexico to fall 23 per cent in 2009

MONTREAL - A structural change in demand for autos and wood products will likely limit growth in North American trade for years after it suffered its worst decline in 2009 since NAFTA went into effect 15 years ago, analysts said Thursday.

MONTREAL - A structural change in demand for autos and wood products will likely limit growth in North American trade for years after it suffered its worst decline in 2009 since NAFTA went into effect 15 years ago, analysts said Thursday.

"I don't know if we'll ever see those peak numbers again, but we do think that gradually, over time, we'll work our way somewhere back to a more normalized level," Edward Jones analyst Brian Yarbrough said in an interview.

While transportation volumes have started to improve, it could take several years before they reach the levels of 2007 and 2008.

Yarbrough said there is little hope that Americans will once again purchase as many as 16.5 million cars a year or build two million new homes annually.

Demand in those two key sectors helps drive cross-border trade in industries that employ hundreds of thousands of Canadians.

Last year's auto sector collapse, falling oil and natural gas prices and the housing bubble contributed to a 23.3 per cent decrease in surface transportation trade, the U.S. Transportation Department said in a report Thursday.

It marked the largest annual decrease since the North American Free Trade Agreement went into effect in 1994. The value of products that were shipped by truck, rail and pipeline between Canada, the United States and Mexico dropped to US$637 billion in 2009 from US$829.9 billion in 2008 and US$797.3 billion in 2007, the report said.

The year ended with a 10.5 per cent increase in December compared with 2008, the only month that saw a year-over-year increase.

Fuelled by the economic crisis and the bankruptcy of General Motors and Chrysler, monthly trade reached its low point in May, falling 35.4 per cent to US$47.9 billion.

Canadian Trucking Alliance chief executive David Bradley said the recovery will likely to be different this time because the recession itself wasn't merely cyclical.

"While we are at best stabilized at this point, nobody is showing real confidence that we're going to see sustained growth in the next while," Bradley said in an interview.

While northbound trade has improved because of the strength of the Canadian economy, exports to the U.S. remain under pressure. That should continue in part because of the stronger Canadian dollar and uncertainty about U.S. consumer demand.

North American automotive trade decreased by 28 per cent last year to US$99.8 billion from $138.9. Between Canada and the United States, vehicle and part exports and imports fell 32.2 per cent to US$62.9 billion from $92.7 billion in 2008.

Wood products trade, excluding pulp and paper, was down 27 per cent to $7 billion from $9.7 billion.

Decreased prices for oil and natural gas caused the value of trade in these commodities to decrease 42.8 per cent to US$73.5 billion from $128.4.

Overall, surface trade between Canada and the United States totalled US$386 billion in 2009, a decrease of 28.1 per cent.

Canada's strongest trade was with Michigan, the home of the Big Three automakers. It was followed by Illinois, California, Ohio and New York.

In December, trade between Canada and its largest trading partner grew by 7.8 per cent to US$35.4 billion.

Canadian truckers, who have seen their business with the U.S. grow over the past 20 years, watched it decrease 22.9 per cent to US$246.6 billion in 2009.

Thousands of truckers have lost their jobs as carriers went bankrupt.

Bradley expects more companies will go bust even amid a recovery because lenders will stop being lax about seeking loan payments for rigs.

"We don't think we've seen the end of that yet," he said, noting that the industry will be wiser now about creating too much capacity.

Railway jobs were also lost as companies such as Canadian National (TSX:CNR) and Canadian Pacific (TSX:CP) cut costs, stored cars and hunkered down amid soft demand.

In addition to cutting capacity, railways have maintained rail pricing during the downturn.

The Canadian government says trade between Canada and Mexico totalled US$22.3 billion, including US$16.8 billion of imports into Canada.

Nearly 87 per cent of U.S. merchandise trade with Canada and Mexico moved on land.

Despite last year's decreases, surface trade in North America has increased 27 per cent from 1999, officials say.