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Growth in exports slowed in May for the third straight month, signaling the pace of the economic recovery is likely to cool.

Shipments abroad advanced 32.1 percent from a year earlier, less than April’s 40.4 percent, the Finance Ministry said Thursday. The median estimate in a survey of 19 economists was for 36.5 percent. From the previous month, exports fell a seasonally adjusted 1.2 percent.

The report highlights Japan’s vulnerability to any slowdown in global trade after exports drove the economy’s 5 percent annualized expansion in the first quarter. Bank of Japan Deputy Gov. Kiyohiko Nishimura said Wednesday that policymakers need to monitor whether Europe’s sovereign debt crisis will start to have an impact here.

“It will be difficult to maintain the same recovery pace in the coming months,” said Susumu Kato, chief economist for Japan at Credit Agricole CIB and CLSA. “Looking ahead, export growth will likely slow as there’s still uncertainty surrounding the global financial markets.”

The yen has climbed against all 16 major currencies this quarter, threatening the competitiveness of exporters.

Executives this month voiced concern about the yen’s advance. The effect of currency gains on companies is “huge” and volatile exchange rate movements are the “worst thing” that can happen, Hiromasa Yonekura, head of the Japan Business Federation (Nippon Keidanren), said June 7.

Imports climbed 33.4 percent in May from a year earlier, leaving a trade surplus of ¥324.2 billion, the Finance Ministry said. The median estimate of economists was for a ¥480 billion excess.

Growth in exports to all of Japan’s three major markets slowed in May, Thursday’s report shows. The value of shipments to China, Japan’s biggest market, climbed 25.3 percent from a year earlier, moderating from 41.3 percent in April. Exports to the U.S. advanced 17.7 percent, about half the pace of the previous month’s 34.4 percent. Shipments to Europe increased 17.4 percent, compared with 19.9 percent in April.

“We are starting to see some moderation,” though overseas demand will continue to support the recovery, said Yoshiki Shinke, senior economist at Dai-ichi Life Research Institute. “We may start to see a more serious slowdown toward the end of the year” as stimulus boosts fade and production cycles peak in economies abroad, he said.

Prime Minister Naoto Kan has over the past week released plans for boosting economic growth as well as shrinking the budget deficit to contain the world’s biggest public debt.

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