Business / Economy

Japan trade surplus dives 99% in March as coronavirus hits exports

AFF-Jiji, Reuters

Japan's trade surplus dived 99 percent in March from a year earlier as coronavirus woes hit exports to its major trading partners, official data showed Monday.

The March surplus came in at ¥4.9 billion ($45.5 million), less than 1 percent of the year-before figure of ¥517 billion, according to the Finance Ministry.

Overall, exports fell 11.7 percent, with U.S.-bound shipments tumbling 16.5 percent and shipments to China falling 8.7 percent. Exports to the European Union fell 11.1 percent.

"Exports to the United States and Europe as well as to China fell as the global spread of virus infections hit demand," said Takeshi Minami, chief economist at Norinchukin Research Institute.

"I'd say this is only the beginning," he said, predicting exports would come under further pressure.

U.S.-bound shipments saw the biggest decline since April 2011, weighed by drops in demand for cars, airplane motors and construction and mining machinery.

Prospects are also gloomy for semiconductors even though they managed to log growth in March, Minami said.

"Production activities have stalled with sales of durable goods slack and corporate investment in plants and equipment halted," he said, adding that it was difficult to find good export demand.

"Exports fell sharply in March and are set to plummet this quarter as economic activity in most of Japan's major trading partners has collapsed," said Tom Learmouth, Japan economist at Capital Economics.

Thanks to a gradual recovery in its activity, "China is likely to be a rare bright spot for external demand in Q2", he added in a note.

Japan's imports from the rest of the world fell 5.0 percent as imports from China declined 4.5 percent and those from the EU fell 9.7 percent.

Imports from the United States rose 1.3 percent, supported by purchases of aircraft, medical supplies and liquefied natural gas.

Monday's bleak data underscored the challenges Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's government faces in dealing with a collapse in activity that is expected to send the global economy into its deepest slump since the Great Depression of the 1930s.

After a jump in virus cases, Abe expanded a state of emergency last week to include the entire country, which gave authorities more power to push people to stay home and businesses to close.

The global economy is expected to shrink 3.0 percent in 2020 in a collapse of activity that would mark the steepest downturn since the Great Depression of the 1930s, the International Monetary Fund said last week. The pandemic has now infected more than 2.2 million and killed more than 150,000 people globally.

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