Japan posts record trade deficit of $112 billion in 2013 as imports outpace growth in exports

TOKYO – Japan’s trade deficit surged to a record 11.47 trillion yen ($112 billion) in 2013 as the shutdown of nuclear power plants swelled the nation’s energy import bill.

Provisional data Monday showed that exports rose 9.5 per cent to 69.8 trillion yen ($680.9 billion), while imports jumped 15 per cent to 81.3 trillion yen ($793.2 billion).

Japan’s trade deficit in 2012 was 6.94 trillion yen. The deficit has been rising as costs for imports have surged with the weakening of the Japanese yen and increased purchases of foreign oil and gas. Japan’s nuclear reactors have been offline for safety and regulatory checks after the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami devastated the Fukushima nuclear plant.

The largest shortfall, 13.2 trillion yen ($128.8 billion), was with the Middle East, source of the largest share of resource-scarce Japan’s imports of oil and gas.

The weaker yen is a mixed blessing for Japan. It is boosting corporate profits due to higher yen-denominated income for companies that earn a large share of their revenues overseas.

“Our imports are affected both by the yen’s value and also by oil prices, so we will be watching the situation,” chief government spokesman Yoshihide Suga said Monday. He reiterated Japan’s eagerness to buy lower-priced shale gas from North America, pending U.S. approval of such exports.

Apart from energy imports, Japanese manufacturers increasingly are relying on overseas sources for components for electronics and other products. The recovery in exports so far has failed to offset those costs and Japanese consumers are paying sharply higher prices for fuel and food.

Japan’s deficit with China, its biggest trading partner, rose more than 43 per cent in 2013 to 5.02 trillion yen ($49 billion). With the U.S., it logged a surplus of 6.1 trillion yen ($59.5 billion), up nearly 20 per cent from a year earlier.

December’s deficit was 1.3 trillion yen ($12.7 billion), the fourth straight month of increase.

Japan’s economy emerged from recession a year ago and has been gaining momentum, spurred by strong government spending and monetary stimulus. That has also pushed demand for imports higher, a trend likely to continue at least until a 3 percentage point increase in consumption tax to 8 per cent takes effect in April, said Marcel Thieliant, an economist for Capital Economics in Singapore.

So far, most of the increase in exports has come from the yen’s weakening rather than an increase in export volumes, he said.

“On the one hand, we expect the yen to weaken further, which should keep the cost of imports elevated. On the other hand, export volumes are likely to pick up as global growth is accelerating,” he said in a commentary.

The worse-than-expected trade data coincided with a flurry of selling on Tokyo’s stock exchange, where the benchmark Nikkei 225 fell below 15,000 for the first time in two months following last week’s selloffs in Europe and the U.S. The index closed down 2.8 per cent at 15,005.73.