As Donald Trump was sworn in as 45th president of the United States January 20, 500 Vancouver businessmen and women gathered at Canada Place to watch it live and hear from Canadian and American economists and business leaders on what it means for Canada’s economy.
And of course, as some pointed out, Trump has proven himself to be so capricious, so “improvisational” and so ill-informed on some issues that it is hard to say just how good or bad he may be, although there is some genuine fear he will impose a number of protectionist policies that could hurt Canadian businesses.
Moreover, he faces a Congress that has its own agenda.
Even so, Michael Audain, chairman of Polygon Homes, confessed he found Trump’s inauguration speech “chilling.”
“But if I was sitting in Mexico, I would feel even more of a chill,” he said, a reference to the fact that Trump’s principal targets in anti-trade rhetoric has been Mexico and China, not Canada.
Jingoistic and self-laudatory, Trump’s speech was also tinged with menace for America’s trading partners.
“From this day forward, it's going to be only America first, America first,” Trump said. “Every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs will be made to benefit American workers and American families. We must protect our borders from the ravages of other countries making our product, stealing our companies and destroying our jobs.”
The single biggest issue from Canada may be the renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement, and the biggest issue for B.C. may be softwood lumber.
Audain said Canadians should remain optimistic but also focus on developing trade with other countries.
“We do have to recognize that there are other trading partners in the world, other than the United States, and we really should be doing more than what we have in the past in terms of trading, particularly with Asia,” he said.
He added Canada should also work on bilateral agreements with the UK and Mexico.
Trump has promised massive spending on infrastructure, which Ira Kalish, chief global economist forDeloitte Touche Tohmatsu in Los Angeles, said “investment in infrastructure was a good idea.”
But all that spending, combined with tax cuts, will increase America’s debt, which means interest rates will go up, Kalish said.
Kari Yuers, President and CEO Kryton International, said the infrastructure spending in both the U.S. and Canada will leave a “funding gap,” that could provide opportunities for business in private-public partnerships, something B.C. has some experience with.
“We have a lot of know-how in public-private partnerships and how to get projects built on a collaborative basis and I think that’s an opportunity for B.C.,” she said.
Graham Clarke, Chair and CEO, Vancouver International Maritime Centre, suggested Trump’s recklessness – and the enmity he has earned from the press – could bring Trump to a Nixon moment that he might not survive into a second term.
“I think that there are a number of possible outcomes,” Clarke said. “He could be a very successful but unorthodox president. I don’t think it’s a probability. I think there’s a possibility he won’t get past the end of the second year because there may be a huge down ballot result from the disappointment of the unfulfilled, impossible promises that he’s made.”