Japan trade deficit nearly doubles on energy bills
TOKYO - Agence France-PresseJapan's October trade deficit nearly doubled from a year ago, official data showed Wednesday, as soaring post-Fukushima energy bills eclipsed an improving export picture.
Government figures showed that Japan logged a bigger-than-expected 1.09 trillion yen ($10.9 billion) trade deficit last month. The latest figure, a record for October, was nearly double a 556.2 billion yen shortfall a year earlier and marked the 16th straight month of deficit, the longest stretch in over three decades.
Energy imports surged after the 2011 Fukushima crisis forced the shutdown of Japan's nuclear reactors, which once supplied a third of the nation's power.
A sharp decline in the yen, which is good for exporters' profitability, has also forced up the cost of importing pricey fossil-fuels to plug the country's energy gap.
The currency has been under pressure since Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who took office late last year, launched a policy blitz that meshed government spending with a central bank monetary easing plan unveiled in April.
The moves are aimed at rebooting the world's third-largest economy, which has suffered from growth-sapping deflation for years.
Japan's trade imbalance was largely due to the rising cost -- and volume -- of crude oil and liquefied natural gas shipments as well as surging purchases of electronic parts. Overall, imports jumped 26.1 percent to 7.2 trillion yen from a year ago, rising at their fastest pace in over three years.
Exports were also up again, rising 18.6 percent to 6.1 trillion yen, according to the government.
"Exports were rather weak until September, but now they seem to be recovering," said Yasuo Yamamoto, senior economist at the Mizuho Research Institute.
"But imports have increased substantially, contributing to the trade deficit." Wednesday's trade data came after separate figures last week showed Japan's gross domestic product growth halved in the July-September quarter, on slower exports and consumer spending.
Japan's long-laggard economy led expansion among G7 nations the first half of the year largely due to Abe's growth bid.
"After we saw exports decrease in the July-September GDP, these October export figures are somewhat of a relief," Yamamoto told Dow Jones Newswires.
"I think we'll be seeing the trade deficit gradually shrinking, but only incrementally, since the weaker yen is pushing up import prices," he added.
Exports expanded in most major markets with US-bound shipments rising 26.4 percent while goods to the European Union jumped 27.0 percent in October.
Shipments to major trade partner China rose 21.3 percent as the impact of a consumer boycott on Japanese brands fades. The boycott came after a Tokyo-Beijing territorial dispute over a set of islands in the East China Sea set off protests in China and soured already testy relations between the Asian giants.
Japan's improving export picture has largely been a result of the yen, which has weakened by about one-quarter against the dollar since late last year.
The decline makes Japanese exporters more competitive overseas and inflates the value of repatriated overseas earnings.
"The sharp weakening of the yen over the past year is partly to blame for the widening of the trade deficit in recent months," said London-based Capital Economics.
"We expect the yen to weaken further, which should keep some upward pressure on the trade deficit, even though this should be mitigated by lower commodity prices." The Bank of Japan (BoJ) unleashed an unprecedented monetary easing plan earlier this year, a key part of Tokyo's growth plan which heaped pressure on the currency.
The BoJ starts a two-day policy meeting Wednesday with markets keen to see if its expands its massive stimulus drive.