Canadian dollar dips below 77 cents US on trade worries

The Canadian dollar dipped below 77 cents US on Monday, its lowest level since last July as fears of a trade war cast a gloomy shadow on the Canadian economy's prospects.

Loonie has steadily slid lower as protectionist trade talk has begun to overshadow NAFTA negotiations

The Canadian dollar has slumped to its lowest level against the U.S. dollar since last summer. (Mark Blinch/Reuters)

The Canadian dollar dipped below 77 cents US on Monday, its lowest level since last July as fears of a trade war cast a gloomy shadow on the Canadian economy's prospects.

The loonie got as low as 76.92 US in mid-afternoon trading before regaining some lost ground to climb back above the 77-cent mark. The currency began February above 81 cents US, but has steadily slid lower as protectionist trade talk has begun to overshadow ongoing negotiations between Canada, the U.S. and Mexico to update the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement.

U.S. President Donald Trump has threatened to tear up the agreement unless a better version can be created, and that prospect has sparked concerns for Canada's economy, which is heavily dependent on exports to the U.S.

Canada provides more than one-sixth of all the steel that the U.S. imports and almost half the aluminum, and threats that those two commodities would be subject to a tariff have depressed the value of the country's currency.

The tariff talk "is doing no service to the loonie" BMO economist Robert Kavcic said in a note to clients early Monday. 

Through the end of 2017, the loonie had rallied partly because economists were expecting a number of rate hikes from the Bank of Canada this year. But those expectations are now a little lower, following a few sobering economic data points, including January's employment report that showed the economy lost almost 100,000 jobs during the month.

Bank of Canada rate decision

Then on Friday, Statistics Canada revealed that the economy only expanded at a 1.7 per cent pace in the last three months of the year — well below its prior pace.

The Bank of Canada will meet on Wednesday and announce its latest decision on interest rates, and trading in currency swap contracts imply there's only a 12 per cent chance of a hike. In January, the odds were almost twice that. So some of the loonie's recent slump is related to expectations that were too high to begin with.

"We'll see how much longer these levels can hold," Kavcic said of the loonie's position when it was hovering just above 77 cents.

The loonie is weakening against a number of currencies, including the Mexican peso and the Japanese yen, but its decline looks even starker because it's coming at a time when the U.S. dollar is surging in its own right.

Trump's tough talk on trade sent the U.S. dollar higher, and it has now passed a number of key technical benchmarks. "This suggests a medium-term upswing in the USD is developing," Scotiabank's foreign exchange team said.