Food manufacturing a bright spot in March sales slump

Canadian manufacturing was hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent plant closures

Canadian manufacturing sales posted their biggest percentage drop since the financial crisis in March and economists warned sales are expected to continue to fall in April as the COVID-19 pandemic brought the economy to a crawl.

Royal Bank senior economist Nathan Janzen said Thursday that the economic data would also likely get significantly worse in April with containment measures in place for the entire month.

"Beyond that, we could see some improvement in May already with social distancing measures easing in spots, but the drop in activity in March and April is still likely to be staggering, and entirely unprecedented in modern measured economic data," Janzen wrote in a brief note.

Statistics Canada reported Thursday manufacturing sales fell 9.2% to $50.8 billion in March, the lowest level since June 2016, as factories shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic or faced sharply lower demand.

The average estimate by economists was for a drop of 5.7%, according to financial markets data firm Refinitiv.

In volumes terms, manufacturing sales fell 8.3%.

Sales fell in 17 of 21 industries. However, sales in food manufacturing sales rose 8.2%, while paper manufacturing sales climbed 8.4% as Canadians stocked up on groceries and toilet paper. Beverage and tobacco sales rose 6.7%.

READ: Grocery store sales still high, but below mid-March peak: StatsCan

Regionally, manufacturing sales were down in eight provinces in March, led by Ontario which saw a 14.3% drop and Quebec where sales fell 4.1%.

Manitoba saw sales rise 8.2%, boosted by food sales, while Nova Scotia reported a 2.9% increase on higher sales in the transportation equipment and paper industries.

In a preliminary estimate for March released last month, Statistics Canada said the economy posted a 9% decline for the month as business came to a standstill due to measures taken to slow the spread of the pandemic.

Statistics Canada is expected to release its full report on how the economy fared in March on May 29 when it will also report its results for the first quarter of the year.

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