OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canadian exports fell by the most in 3-1/2 years in August as cheaper commodity prices took a bite out of the energy sector, although the data did not dispel expectations that economic growth picked up in the third quarter.
Canada's trade deficit widened to C$2.53 billion ($1.93 billion), data from Statistics Canada showed on Tuesday, surpassing the C$1.20 billion deficit economists had forecast. Revisions showed a bigger deficit for July.
Exports dropped 3.6 percent, the biggest decline since January 2012 as exports of energy products tumbled. The decline in the sector was almost entirely the result of lower exports of crude oil and crude bitumen, the agency said.
Oil prices have fallen by more than half since last summer. Prices for Canadian energy exports dropped in August, but volumes increased by 2.0 percent.
The drop in oil prices put Canada in a mild recession in the first half of 2015, although economists and policymakers expect growth will regain momentum in the second half.
Economists said the details of the report were not as soft as the headline figure, pointing to a smaller decline in export volumes. It also reinforced expectations the Bank of Canada will hold interest rates steady when it meets later this month after two cuts earlier this year.
"This report reinforces our belief that growth will be solid in the third quarter, with trade providing a big boost," Benjamin Reitzes, senior economist at BMO Capital Markets, wrote in a note.
Still, he added, "whether that momentum can be sustained into the fourth quarter remains an open question."
Indeed, the International Monetary Fund lowered its growth projection for Canada to 1.0 percent this year, a tad lower than the Bank of Canada's 1.1 percent forecast.
The IMF is less optimistic about growth in 2016, cutting its outlook to 1.7 percent from 2.1 percent. The Bank of Canada sees 2.3 percent growth next year, although it will release updated projections on Oct. 21.
The Canadian dollar weakened to a session low against the greenback shortly after the trade data before strengthening. [CAD/]
Exports to the United States decreased 3.0 percent and Canada's trade surplus with the United States narrowed to C$2.9 billion.
A separate poll released on Tuesday showed nearly one in six Canadians would be overburdened by a C$500 increase in their monthly mortgage payments, highlighting concerns about whether homeowners have taken on too much debt.
Editing by Dan Grebler