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Japan Monthly Trade Deficit Hits Record as Imports Jump

Tuesday, 19 Feb 2013 | 7:58 PM ET

Japan's trade deficit widened to a record in January as energy imports rose more than expected, highlighting one of the risks of seeking to revive the country's export engine through pursuing policies that could weaken the currency.

The trade deficit reached a record 1.6 trillion yen ($17.1 billion), larger than a median forecast for a 1.38 trillion yen deficit.

(Read More: Japan Economy still in Recession, but Pick Up Coming)

The data comes as new Prime Minister Shinzo Abe works on plans to combine aggressive monetary policy easing with fiscal stimulus to shift the economy into a higher gear and end nearly 20 years of mild deflation.

"Trade deficits could continue for much of this year, if not into next year," said Norio Miyagawa, senior economist at Mizuho Securities Research & Consulting.

"This shows that on a net basis money is leaving the country. We need to turn this around by increasing our earnings power from exports. A weak yen will help, but it won't solve all our problems."

(Read More: Japan Machine Orders Surprisingly Strong, Recovery Eyed)

Since November the yen has tumbled 16 percent versus the dollar as expectations have grown for aggressive fiscal and monetary policy measures -- making exports more competitive but increasing the cost of imports priced in dollars.

Exports rose 6.4 percent in January from a year earlier, more than the median estimate for a 5.6 percent annual increase.

It was the first increase in eight months.

Exports to China, the major destination for Japanese shipments, rose 3.0 percent from a year earlier.

Imports jumped 7.3 percent in January from a year earlier, well above the median estimate for a 1.6 percent annual increase, as Japan imported more fossil fuels to make up for the closure of almost all of its nuclear power plants.

(Read More: Japan Current Account Surplus Falls to record Low in 2012)

Since taking office in December, Abe has compiled a stimulus package that is the country's biggest spending push since the global financial crisis in an effort to kickstart the economy, which has contracted for the past three quarters.

Next week, Abe is expected to nominate a BOJ governor and two deputy governors, giving him the opportunity to shift the central bank toward the aggressive easing that he favors.