The nation’s customs-cleared merchandise trade surplus for January plunged 91.7 percent from the same month last year to 5.2 billion yen, according to preliminary figures released Feb. 19.

But the Finance Ministry also reported that the surplus with the United States jumped 81.6 percent. It attributed the widening gap chiefly to a sharp rise in auto exports.

Ministry officials said the steep fall in overall surplus – the 26th consecutive month of decline — was due to seasonal, rather than structural, factors, but added that they predict the surplus to continue its fall. They played down the effects of the rapid depreciation of the yen against the dollar during the month, saying that while foreign exchange factors may have helped boost exports, it also brought up import figures by hiking oil prices in yen terms.

Exports rose 17.2 percent to 3.55 trillion yen, logging the 18th consecutive month of increase and the highest growth since July. Auto exports surged 50.3 percent in value terms and 33.3 percent in volume terms, an increase the Finance Ministry attributes mainly to low export levels in January 1996 and some effects of a weaker yen.

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