Japan April trade deficit up as energy costs rise

Japan recorded a bigger-than-expected trade deficit in April, official data showed Wednesday, as higher energy costs hiked imports while shipments to China -- its biggest market -- fell from a year ago.

The country posted a monthly deficit of 520.3 billion yen ($6.5 billion), the finance ministry said, up from 477.7 billion yen a year ago and the highest ever for April.

Japan has switched off its nuclear reactors following last year's quake-tsunami disaster, which sparked the worst atomic crisis in a generation and pounded the world's third-largest economy.

The policy has forced the resource-poor nation to turn to pricey fossil fuel alternatives, helping to push up April imports, which rose 8.0 percent to 6.09 trillion yen.

Exports also rose in the period, up 7.9 percent from a year earlier to 5.57 trillion yen, boosted by shipments of automobiles and vehicle parts, with US-bound trade jumping from a year earlier.

The deficit, the second straight year-on-year monthly shortfall, was bigger than analyst expectations of 470 billion yen and Hideki Matsumura, senior economist at the Japan Research Institute, said weakening exports to China were a concern.

Japan had a 274.2 billion yen trade deficit with its Asian neighbour, which overtook it as the world's second-biggest economy in 2010, as exports fell 7.1 percent, the seventh consecutive month of year-on-year drops.

Concerns over China's slowing growth have intensified after a recent slew of weak economic data, including a report that showed output from the country's millions of factories and workshops hit a near three-year low in April.

"Looking forward, the growth in exports will depend on overseas economies... and exports may continue to weaken," Matsumura told Dow Jones Newswires.

Japan saw a trade surplus of 425.8 billion yen with the United States, a 165 percent year-on-year increase as the world's biggest economy mounts a lumbering recovery.

But shipments to debt-hit Europe, another key market for Japanese products, fell 1.9 percent while imports from the continent were 4.2 percent lower.

Analysts have said that high prices for liquefied natural gas and rising imports in Japan, beset by a rapidly ageing population and shrinking manufacturing sector, were likely to generate trade deficits throughout 2012.

On Tuesday, Fitch cut Japan's credit rating, citing its massive public debt, and warned of another possible downgrade if Japan does not hasten its bid to reduce it.

Japan's national debt stands at more than twice its gross domestic product -- the highest such ratio among industrialised nations.

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