A boom in traffic at Canadian National Railways Co. (CNR) and Canadian Pacific Railway Ltd. (CP), the country’s two largest rail companies, may mean Canada’s recovery will be buoyant even after economists and the Bank of Canada pared their outlook for growth this year.
Canadian freight volumes accelerated in the fourth quarter to their fastest pace in 2011 on a year-over-year basis, while commodity carloads were up 6.8 percent in December from November on a seasonally adjusted basis, according to data from the Association of American Railroads. Data from Statistics Canada showing stronger volumes in the August-October period also suggest future economic growth.
Rising rail shipments add to evidence that sales at Canadian producers such as chemicals maker Canexus Corp. (CUS) haven’t faltered in the face of the European debt crisis and a weak U.S. recovery. Bank of Canada Governor Mark Carney said last month risks to the global economy may lead to a “prolonged period of deficient demand.” Changes in rail carloads have predicted 63 percent of changes in monthly GDP three months into the future since 2000, according to Bloomberg calculations.
“One of the great challenges right now is there is an incredible skew among economic indicators,” said Eric Lascelles, chief economist at RBC Global Asset Management Inc. in Toronto, which oversees about C$250 billion ($246 billion), adding that he uses rail freight as part of a set of indicators to gauge Canada’s economic outlook. “Now is the sort of time when you want to look at unusual indicators because the traditional ones just aren’t giving a clear picture.”
Economists and policy makers have been reducing their forecasts for the Canadian economy on concerns that the country’s expansion will slow if the European crisis hampers confidence, slowing emerging economies curb demand for the country’s commodities, and debt-laden consumers spend less.
Canada’s S&P/TSX benchmark stock index (STINDU) lagged behind the U.S.’s S&P 500 in 2011 for the first year since 2003 as producers of raw materials and energy dropped. Canada’s expansion in 2012, projected at 2 percent, will trail U.S. growth for the first time in seven years, according to 21 economists surveyed by Bloomberg News. In May, economists had forecast 2012 Canadian growth of 2.8 percent.
Canada’s quarterly expansion is expected to average an annualized 1.9 percent over the 12 months ending September 2012, almost half the third quarter pace, according to the Bloomberg survey. That will lead Carney to keep the central bank’s policy interest rate at 1 percent through 2012, the survey found.
Carloads of commodities such as chemicals for Canadian railways, including their U.S. operations, rose 5.3 percent in the fourth-quarter from a year earlier, the fastest pace in 2011, according to Association of American Railroads data. Intermodal carloads, which can move by rail, road and sea and which often move retail goods, increased at a 4.5 percent pace, also a 2011 quarterly high.
The rail data point to a more bullish outlook than some other economic data suggest. The value of building permits has declined in four of the past five months and home resales have slowed, suggesting a cooling housing market. The economy has generated only 7,400 jobs over the last six months, and the jobless rate has risen in each of the past three months, to 7.5 percent in December.
Still, manufacturing business conditions in Canada improved in December, according to purchasing managers indexes released this month by Royal Bank of Canada and the University of Western Ontario. A Bank of Canada survey of executives released Jan. 9 showed companies anticipate hiring more and increasing investment, even as they predict slower sales growth for the first time in almost three years.
Growth will “be higher than people are expecting,” said Denis Senecal, head of fixed income in Montreal at State Street Global Advisors, which manages about C$30 billion in Canadian assets. Freight volumes are a “good proxy” for the economy, he added.
Myles Zyblock, chief institutional strategist at Royal Bank in Toronto, raised his six- to nine-month view of Canadian equities to “above-benchmark” from “market-weight” in a Jan. 4 report to clients. Ed Sollbach of Desjardins Securities Inc. forecast in a report on the same day the Standard & Poor’s/TSX Composite Index would climb to 14,200, which would be a 19 percent increase from its Dec. 30 close.
Faster growth may benefit materials and industrial companies most closely tied to economic expansion, such as Calgary-based Canexus. Its stock has jumped 29 percent over the past three months.
Canada’s S&P/TSX Industrials Index (STINDU) has advanced 13 percent over the past three months, compared with a 5.9 percent gain for the S&P/TSX Composite Index. (SPTSX) Aecon Group Inc. (ARE), a Toronto engineering business, led gainers with a 52 percent return. Canadian Pacific stock has increased 32 percent in three months, while shares of Canadian National are up 9.5 percent.
Growth may also fuel demand for Canadian corporate debt, said State Street’s Senecal.
The extra yield demanded by investors to own debt of Canadian industrial companies instead of federal government bonds has fallen to 181 basis points on Jan. 10 from 202 basis points at the beginning of the fourth quarter, according to Bank of America Merrill Lynch data. The so-called spread on a broad index of Canadian investment-grade companies narrowed to 179 basis points from 183 basis points in that interval.
Railway carloads measured in metric tons rose at an average year-over-year rate of 11.2 percent in the three months ending October, according to Statistics Canada, up from 4.8 percent average growth in the previous seven months and similar to the pace in 2010 when the economy was recovering from recession.
Canadian railroads moved 609,000 units in December, a record for the month and 3.3 percent above December 2007 levels, the last peak for the industry, according to Bloomberg Industries.
“Freight volumes for the Canadian rails ended the year on a strong note,” said Lee Klaskow, a Skillman, New Jersey-based analyst with Bloomberg Industries. “Strength was mostly across the board.”
The average weekly freight volume at Montreal-based Canadian National over the past month was up 9 percent from the period a year earlier, according to Bloomberg Industries data that includes the company’s U.S. operations. In December, CN motor vehicle shipments rose 17 percent, mineral volumes were up 3.6 percent and intermodal traffic climbed 15.8 percent, the data show.
The four-week moving average at Canadian Pacific showed a 10.1 percent volume increase from a year earlier, led by gains in automobile shipments, coal and minerals. Auto shipments at Calgary-based CP were up 48 percent in December and the railway recorded a 27 percent jump in mineral volumes, according to Bloomberg Industries.
“Overall, if those sort of numbers were to hold up on the carloadings, that could provide some indication” of robust goods-production growth, said Mark Chandler, head of fixed income strategy at Royal Bank of Canada’s capital markets unit in Toronto.