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Canada unveils wait and see budget amid U.S. policy uncertainty

Canada's Liberal government unveiled a stay-the-course budget on Wednesday that targeted export growth and some measure of tax reform but did little to whittle away at deficits even as it backed off from an explicit pledge to improve the debt outlook. Finance Minister Bill Morneau's second budget contained few surprises, in line with expectations that Ottawa wants to wait to see what impact U.S. President Donald Trump’s still-evolving policies will have on Canadian competitiveness and trade before committing to further stimulus or tax reform. The budget blueprint, which is bound to be implemented given the Liberal’s parliamentary majority, reinstated a fiscal cushion, effectively a rainy day reserve set at C$3 billion a year to guard against any unexpected event that could hurt the government books, a move economists praise as prudent. Bringing back the cushion widened the projected deficit in 2017-2018 to C$28.5 billion from C$27.8 billion forecast in November, nearly three times the C$10 billion annual deficit targeted by the Liberals during their 2015 election campaign. But, combined with modest economic assumptions that look easy to beat, the cushion should allow the government to trumpet a better-than-expected performance as it nears the 2019 federal election.

Still, the opposition Conservatives said the budget would make life more expensive for Canadians at a time when Trump wants to move in the opposite direction in the United States."(It) misses a critical opportunity to respond to Trump's aggressive move forward to reduce taxes on both businesses and individuals," interim party leader Rona Ambrose told reporters. The move to drop an explicit goal of improving the debt-to-GDP ratio over the course of the government’s four-year mandate disappointed economists concerned that Canada is not prepared to rein in deficits after trying to stimulate tepid growth with infrastructure spending and tax cuts for families.

"In terms of ‘stay the course’ and ‘do no harm,’ I think the budget achieved those goals, but I would have preferred they’d left an explicit target some sort in terms of debt to GDP declining or ideally a balanced budget,” said Craig Wright, chief economist at RBC. The Liberals had previously promoted the ratio, which at about 31.5 percent of GDP is low compared with many G7 rivals, as a better measure of the nation’s debt burden than the deficit, which had been eliminated under the previous Conservative government.

Morneau repeatedly referred to the benefits of free trade, pushing back on U.S. protectionism just a week after a pledge to promote free trade was removed from the concluding statement of the G20 meeting in Germany at the insistence of the United States, Canada’s largest trading partner. The finance minister touted the budget as “ambitious but responsible" and laid out a plan to grow Canada’s goods and services exports by 30 percent by 2025, a lofty goal given the slow pace of export growth since the 2009 recession. In continuing the Liberal’s pledge to increase taxes on the wealthiest Canadians to help the middle class, the budget promised to close a loophole that allowed high-income earners to use private corporations to reduce income taxes. It also pledged to tax ride-sharing programs, such as Uber [UBER. UL], at the same rate as taxi corporations. While the budget did not contain any measures aimed at cooling Canada’s hot housing market, Morneau promised additional money to gather housing data, seen as a possible first step to reining in foreign investment or speculation that observers say has created a bubble in Toronto, Canada’s largest city.

Unions threaten to scupper Linde Praxair merger

Linde (LING. DE) labor representatives will vote against the German industrial gases group's planned $65 billion merger with U.S. rival Praxair (PX. N), the head of the German works council told Reuters on Thursday, in a move that could scupper the deal. The merger would entail significant job losses to achieve the promised $1 billion of synergies, with Linde bearing the brunt, while workers would lose their influence on strategy with the headquarters set to move from Germany, Gernot Hahl said. Linde and Praxair are racing to finalize a deal by Linde's annual shareholder meeting on May 10, after agreeing a non-binding term sheet in December. It would then have to be approved by the boards of both companies."Our position in the supervisory board is: No, we will not approve the merger," Hahl said by phone. Linde's supervisory board, half of which is made up of labor representatives, voted unanimously in favor of the intention to merge in December, in exchange for job guarantees through 2021 for Linde's 8,000 German workers. Linde had until now characterized negotiations with its workers as constructive. "The negotiations with Praxair are proceeding as planned," a Linde spokesman said on Thursday. He declined to comment on labor relations. After a meeting with Linde executives last week, the company's European works council sent a letter to staff saying it had become obvious the merger would lead to significant job losses in European countries outside Germany. The company employs several thousand people elsewhere on the continent. "The European Works Council members and the workforce will therefore vigorously oppose the planned merger with Praxair," said the letter seen by Reuters on Wednesday.

Other labor representatives said on Thursday they had previously only agreed to an "examination with an open outcome"."We are against it," said trade union IG Metall. "We think nothing of the merger."Workers representatives also secured the backing of the number two official in Germany's economy ministry."Such a planned merger needs the acceptance of the labor side. This clearly does not currently exist. The economic rationale of such a project has also not been convincingly put forward, in my opinion," state secretary Matthias Machnig wrote. One person close to the negotiations told Reuters it was unclear whether the companies could offer further concessions to appease workers and clinch the deal.

The merger is designed to create an industry leader with a combined market value of $65 billion and revenue of $29 billion that would overtake France's Air Liquide (AIRP. PA) and reunite a global Linde group split by the First World War a century ago. It is the second attempt by the two companies to agree a deal. Previous talks ran aground last September over where to locate key activities and who would run the business, resulting in the departure of Linde's two top executives. CASTING VOTE "The probability that the deal will still go through is still greater than 50 percent in our view, but has clearly decreased," wrote Equinet analyst Knud Hinkel, who has an "accumulate" recommendation on Linde stock.

"If the deal actually collapsed, the share would suffer in the short term. In the long term, Linde could be better off without the merger."Linde shares were up 0.2 percent at 1308 GMT, broadly in line with the German blue-chip DAX . GDAXI. The merger plan envisions a combined holding company being headquartered in Europe, but not Germany - probably Ireland, the Netherlands or Britain. These countries do not offer workers the same rights over strategy that Germany does. Linde Chief Executive Aldo Belloni said earlier this month he would not push through a deal against the will of workers, but was confident of winning them over. Linde's supervisory board will meet next Thursday, but will not yet vote on the matter. If the eventual vote is tied, Chairman Wolfgang Reitzle, the driving force behind the merger, will have a casting vote. "The works council feels it is being pushed into something," said an adviser to the labor side, who asked not to be named because his advice is confidential. "If the capital side wants it, then Reitzle will have to use his casting vote, if they're so convinced."