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Japan’s trade gap widens as import costs surge on supply pressures

Japan’s exports extended double-digit gains for a third straight month in April, but surging global commodity costs inflated the country’s import bill to a record, adding to worries about the rising cost of living.

Shoring up the prospects of a private demand-led recovery, however, was a gauge of capital expenditure that posted its first monthly gain in three months, Reuters reported.

The mixed data on Thursday followed the yen’s falls to two-decade-lows against the dollar earlier this month, which stoked fears of worsening terms of trade and added financial burdens for the resource-poor Japanese economy as import costs soar.

A weak yen, once considered a boon for the export-led economy, now has less of an impact as shipments grow smaller due to the ongoing shift by Japanese manufacturers to offshore production.

Japan’s exports rose 12.5% in April from a year earlier, Ministry of Finance data showed, led by U.S.-bound shipments of cars, slightly missing a 13.8% increase expected by economists in a Reuters poll. It followed a 14.7% rise in March.

In a worrying sign for the outlook, China-bound shipments fell 5.9% in April, the biggest drop since March 2020, as heavy COVID-19 curbs in major cities like Shanghai disrupted supply-chains and paralysed economic activity. Imports from China — Japan’s largest trading partner — also fell the most since September 2020, the data showed.

“Import gains caused by rising crude oil prices and a weak yen mean a transfer of national wealth to oil-producing nations, depriving Japan of purchasing power,” said Takeshi Minami, chief economist at Norinchukin Research Institute.

Imports rose 28.2% in the year to April, versus the median estimate for a 35.0% increase, as the weaker yen lifted already surging global commodity prices. Imports hit a record 8.9 trillion yen ($69.27 billion), topping exports worth 8 trillion yen.

That resulted in a trade deficit of 839.2 billion yen, narrower than the median estimate for a 1.150 trillion yen shortfall but posting a ninth straight month in the red.

Analysts have warned of risks of prolonged cost-push inflation to the fragile economy with external factors, not domestic demand, pushing import bills higher.

“If the zero-COVID policies are extended it will have a really harsh impact,” said Taro Saito, executive research fellow at NLI Research Institute, adding that China-bound shipments account for more than a fifth of Japan’s exports.

Separate data on Thursday showed Japan’s core machinery orders rose 7.1% in March from the previous month, versus a 3.7% increase expected by economists in a Reuters poll.

The volatile data series, regarded as a leading gauge of capital expenditure in the coming six to nine months, provided a glimmer of hope for a domestic demand-led recovery.

Japan’s economy shrank in the first quarter as COVID-19 curbs hit the service sector and surging commodity prices created new pressures.
M.I.

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