January trade deficit hits new high

¥1.48 trillion imbalance blamed on global slump, appreciating yen, rising reliance on foreign energy

by Jun Hongo

Staff Writer

Japan logged a record ¥1.48 trillion trade deficit in January as an overseas slump, appreciating yen and a growing reliance on foreign energy slashed exporters’ profits and boosted imports, the Finance Ministry said Monday.

The deficit ballooned 207.7 percent from January 2011 — the most in a single month since record-keeping began in 1979.

It is also the first time the deficit has broken ¥1 trillion in a single month. The previous single-month record was ¥967.9 billion set in January 2009 after the collapse of Lehman Brothers triggered a global financial crisis.

“The trend for Japan’s overseas trade, which has been in the red since last year, appears to be continuing,” Kohei Okazaki, an economist at Nomura Securities Co., told The Japan Times.

The rise in energy prices and the reduction in business days in Asia caused by the Lunar New Year were two of the main factors behind the deficit, Okazaki said.

“January has characteristically seen slow exports due to the New Year’s holidays,” a Finance Ministry official said, adding that 2012 was the fifth time in the past seven years that a trade deficit was logged in January.

But the official acknowledged that import costs are still growing overall, with fuel costs remaining high. With Europe’s sovereign debt crisis beginning to impact Asia and other regions, it is becoming harder for exports to recover, he said.

Monday’s figures come less than a month after Japan logged a ¥2.5 trillion annual trade deficit, its first since 1980.

In January, exports fell 9.3 percent from a year ago to ¥4.51 trillion, while imports grew 9.8 percent to reach ¥5.99 trillion, up for the 25th consecutive month, the ministry said in a preliminary report.

The large deficit was highlighted by a sharp rise in energy imports, which have been surging in the wake of nuclear power plant shutdowns caused by the Fukushima crisis.

Purchases of crude oil jumped 12.7 percent, but purchases of liquefied natural gas soared 74.3 percent in January.Trade with China for the month logged a deficit of ¥588 billion as exports sank 20.1 percent while imports grew 7.5 percent. Exports of electronic devices and audiovisual parts to China dropped especially fast, while imports of steel surged 65.6 percent and imports of communications devices grew 55.2 percent, the Finance Ministry said.

Trade with other parts of Asia fell into red for the first time in 36 months, logging a ¥357 billion deficit. Imports of crude oil from Vietnam meanwhile spiked 140.7 percent and purchases of liquefied natural gas from Malaysia grew 34.4 percent.

Exports of chips and electronics to the region, on the other hand, shrank by 14.6 percent.

Trade with Europe, which has never fallen into red, barely stayed afloat with a surplus of ¥700 million after falling nearly 99 percent from January 2011, the most ever.