Japan's April trade gap back in red from March surplus; weak yen offsets higher exports to US

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TOKYO — Japan posted a trade deficit in April following a single-month's surplus in March, and economists said shortfalls were likely to persist given the weakness of the yen.

The 53.4 billion yen ($439.6 million) deficit in April for the world's third-biggest economy compared with a 227.4 billion yen surplus in March, the first in several years.

But thanks to lower oil and gas prices, the deficit fell more than forecast, nearly 94 percent from April 2014, when the deficit was 825.5 billion yen, the Finance Ministry reported Monday.

The Japanese yen, now trading around 121.60 to the U.S. dollar, is at its lowest level in price-adjusted terms since January 1973, according to Richard Katz of The Oriental Economist Report.

That means imports are costing Japan more in relative terms than in past decades. Oil prices appear to have bottomed out, augering further deficits, economists say.

"Overall, therefore, the trade balance will likely remain in the red in coming months," said Marcel Thieliant of Capital Economics.

The overall trade balance slipped into deficit in 2011 as oil and gas imports surged following the disaster at the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear power plant, which led to closure of all of the country's reactors for safety checks.

Japan's trade deficit hit a record early last year as consumers stepped up purchases to beat a tax hike on April 1, 2014, which was followed by a brief recession.

Costs for importing oil and gas and a shift of Japanese manufacturing to overseas markets yen, plus persistent weakness in key export markets, have so far precluded an export-led recovery.

A surge in visits by foreign tourists is helping, though demand overseas is sluggish, and inventories are rising due to higher imports late last year, said Masamichi Adachi, of JPMorgan.

"As a result, we think that both exports and imports will slow or even decline this quarter," he said.

In April, exports rose 8 percent year-on-year to 6.55 trillion yen ($53.9 billion) while imports dropped 4.2 percent to 6.6 trillion yen ($54.3 billion).

Japan's exports to the U.S., Japan's biggest market, rose 21 percent from a year earlier to 1.36 trillion yen ($11.2 billion) while imports from the U.S. rose 24 percent, to 714.1 billion yen ($5.9 billion).

Vehicle and parts exports surged 23 percent, machinery exports climbed 19 percent and those of electrical machinery rose 17 percent, thanks to stronger growth in the U.S. and demand in other regions of Asia.

Japan's exports to China edged up 2.4 percent, to 1.21 trillion yen ($9.95 billion), a slower pace than usual due to waning growth in Asia's biggest economy. Exports to all of Asia rose 6 percent, however, on rising shipments to Singapore, Vietnam and South Korea.


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