Japan's exports posted a double-digit slump for a sixth straight month in August as U.S.-bound shipments shrank due to a global demand slowdown from the coronavirus pandemic, casting a shadow over the trade-led recovery from the deep recession.
The export decline highlights the immense task Yoshihide Suga, who is assured to be elected prime minister later on Wednesday, faces in driving an economic recovery.
Total exports fell 14.8 percent year-on-year in August to ¥5.23 trillion ($50 billion), as auto shipments to the European and Asian markets except China remained sluggish, but that marked a smaller decline than the 16.1 percent expected by economists in a Reuters poll, official data showed Wednesday.
That meant exports fell for their 21st straight month, marking the longest run of declines since a 23-month run through July 1987. That followed a 19.2 percent drop in the previous month.
The decline in August was driven by fewer shipments of cars and mineral fuels, though the pace of contraction eased somewhat from July as economic activity showed signs of picking up.
"Strong demand for ICT technology linked to working from home resulted in exports of electric machinery only falling 5.5 percent year-on-year," said Tom Learmouth, Japan economist at Capital Economics.
"However, export volumes may not reach pre-virus levels until early-2022," he said in a note.
Suga, who won a ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) leadership election Monday, will face a huge challenge to get the economy back on track after it posted its worst postwar contraction in the second quarter.
Domestic business activities have been gradually resuming since a state of emergency over the pandemic was fully lifted in late May. But the viral crisis has cast a shadow over the global economic outlook and dampened demand.
By region, shipments to the United States — Japan's key market — fell 21.3 percent in the year to August, weighed heavily by declines in engine parts and construction machinery.
Exports to China, Japan's largest trading partner, rose 5.1 percent year-on-year in August, helped by a sharp increase in shipments of semiconductors, the data showed.
That marked the second straight monthly rise in China-bound shipments, which showed signs of picking up, a finance ministry official said.
Exports to the rest of Asia declined 7.8 percent, weighed by shrinking exports of iron and steel products.
"It's quite difficult to judge from the latest figures whether exports have bottomed out," a ministry official told reporters.
Overall imports fell 20.8 percent to ¥4.98 trillion, down for the 16th straight month, on falling prices for crude oil imports from the United Arab Emirates and other countries. Imports of liquefied natural gas and coal from Australia also significantly dropped.
As a result, the trade balance came to a surplus of ¥248.3 billion, versus the median estimate for a ¥37.5 billion shortfall, marking black ink for the second consecutive month following the ¥10.93 billion recorded in July.