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The customs-cleared trade surplus widened 51.8 percent in April from a year earlier to 926.7 billion yen for its sixth consecutive monthly gain, while exports to the United States fell as auto exports dropped amid an economic slowdown there, government data showed Thursday.

Exports expanded 8.3 percent to 6.64 trillion yen, the highest reading of any April and up for the 41st straight month, led by automobiles to Europe and Russia and steel to the rest of Asia, the Finance Ministry said in a preliminary report.

Imports increased 3.5 percent to 5.71 trillion yen, also the highest level of any April and up for the 38th straight month, due mainly to purchases of large aircraft from the United States and nonferrous metals.

But the import growth remained modest in the reporting month as crude oil imports declined 16.6 percent, down for the third straight month, reflecting the recent drop in crude oil prices, a ministry official said.

The price of crude averaged $60.76 per barrel in April on a customs-cleared basis, down 0.9 percent from a year earlier.

The trade surplus with the United States plunged 18.6 percent from the year before to 654.2 billion yen for the first fall in three months. That was due to a 4.8 percent drop in exports, dragged down by a 7.5 percent decrease in auto exports, which have led Japanese exports to the country.

Exports to the United States totaled 1.34 trillion yen, posting the first fall in 27 months, and auto exports fell for the first time in 25 months.

“It is hard to judge whether a drop in auto exports has something to do with a slowdown in the U.S. economy as we have also heard that Japanese carmakers are boosting local production,” the official said.

But private-sector economists said the drop in auto exports was due to a slowdown in the world’s largest economy.

“I believe auto exports have started to bear the brunt of the slowdown in the U.S. economy and it may continue to be weak for a while,” said Seiji Adachi, senior economist at Deutsche Securities Ltd.

Takahide Kiuchi, senior economist at Nomura Securities Co., said the April result confirmed a slowdown in export growth, centering on that to the United States.

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