• Kyodo

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The current account surplus plunged 76.1 percent to ¥187.4 billion in April compared with the previous year, but the balance stayed in the black for a third consecutive month as the travel figure became a surplus for the first time in about 44 years, government data said Monday.

The current account balance — one of the widest gauges of international trade — was the lowest seen in April since the ¥137.6 billion logged in 1982 as a surge in fossil fuel imports and the sliding yen boosted the trade deficit, the Finance Ministry said.

Imports rose 6.6 percent to ¥6.76 trillion against a backdrop of rising demand for liquefied natural gas, while exports rose 6.2 percent to ¥5.98 trillion on shipments of automobiles and optical instruments, the ministry said in the preliminary report.

The weakened yen helped drive up prices of products and services Japan bought from abroad, but import growth slowed as the first consumption tax hike in 17 years on April 1 dragged down domestic demand.

The services sector, including transportation and cargo shipping, posted a deficit of ¥659.7 billion, but the travel balance — which pits spending by visitors to Japan against that of Japanese traveling abroad — logged a surplus of ¥17.7 billion — the first black ink since July 1970.

The number of foreigners entering Japan in April soared 33.4 percent from a year before to 1.23 million, while Japanese who went overseas declined 4.4 percent to 1.19 million.

The balance of goods trade came to a deficit of ¥780.4 billion, the biggest on record for an April.

The trade balance has been

on the negative side as utilities import huge amounts of gas and oil to offset their loss of nuclear power.

Some analysts, however, say the trade deficit is likely to shrink down the road, as the consumption tax hike to 8 percent will continue to stifle consumer spending and production at home, preventing imports from expanding further.

But exports are expected to recuperate on the back of a global economic recovery, and the current account balance may stay in the black for the time being, said Koya Miyamae, senior economist at SMBC Nikko Securities Inc.

The surplus in the primary income account — which reflects how much Japan earns from its foreign investments — stood at ¥1.83 trillion, buoyed by higher dividends and profits from securities investments due largely to the weaker yen.

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