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Japan exports slow to a crawl on global growth woes, trade tensions

Key Points
  • The 0.1 percent annual rise in exports undershot expectations for a 1.8 percent increase and was well below October's 8.2 percent jump.
  • The data highlights external risks for Japan's export-led economy and comes ahead of the Bank of Japan's monetary policy decision on Thursday.
Kiyoshi Ota | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Japan's export growth slowed to a crawl in November as shipments to the United States and China weakened sharply, in a sign slowing external demand and a Sino-U.S. trade dispute may leave the world's third-largest economy underpowered over the next year.

The 0.1 percent year-on-year rise in exports undershot a 1.8 percent annual increase expected by economists in a Reuters poll, and was well below a 8.2 percent jump in October. In volume terms, exports fell 1.9 percent in the year to November.

The trade data highlights rising external risks for Japan's export-led economy, and comes as the Bank of Japan reviews policy at a two-day meeting that ends Thursday. With consumer inflation remaining weak, and as global economic momentum cools, the BOJ is widely expected to maintain its current ultra-easy policy.

Analysts expect exports to be a drag on the economy over the coming quarters as external demand ebbs. Policy makers will also have to consider the risks from the China-U.S. trade war which have yet to play out in Japan's shipment figures.

"Japan's export volume is slow to expand against the backdrop of global economic slowdown," said Toru Suehiro, senior market economist at Mizuho Securities. "Uncertainty over the world economy remains strong. As such, Japan's exports will struggle to pick up for the time being."

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Japan's exports to the United States grew 1.6 percent year-on-year in November, led by shipments of airplane motors and semiconductor production equipment, slowing sharply from October's 11.6 percent jump.

U.S.-bound auto exports fell 7.0 percent to 163,586 units. U.S. President Donald Trump has criticized Japan as well as China over trade, threatening to impose steep tariffs on imports of Japanese cars, which make up about two-thirds of Japan's $69 billion annual trade surplus with the United States.

External pressure

Japan's imports from the United States rose 8.1 percent in the year to November, led by feed corn, medicines and oil products, helping reduce its trade surplus with the U.S. by 5.4 percent on the year to 623.4 billion yen ($5.55 billion). It was marked the fifth straight month of declines.

Japan's economy contracted the most in over four years in the third quarter due to a series of natural disasters that hurt factory activity and supply chains. Analysts expect a rebound in growth in the current quarter as temporary effects of natural disasters fade away, but trade frictions and slowing external demand cloud the outlook for the export-reliant economy.

A glance at the key numbers suggest 2019 might turn out to be a challenging year. Exports to China, Japan's biggest trading partner, rose 0.4 percent in the year to November, slowing sharply from the previous month's 9.0 percent annual gain.

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The downturn in shipments to China is worrying given Beijing's yet-unresolved trade dispute with the United States, which threatens to rupture global supply chains and dent corporate profits in economies from Japan to Australia to Mexico and Europe.

The omens don't look good. Shipments to Asia, which account for more than half of Japan's overall exports, fell 1.9 percent in November, down for the first time in nine months. Japan's overall imports rose 12.5 percent in the year to November, roughly in line with the median estimate.

The trade balance came to a deficit of 737.3 billion yen for the second straight month of shortfalls. Analysts at Capital Economics said in a note to clients that the recent slump in new export orders in factory surveys suggests that shipment volumes might continue to stagnate. "The upshot is that net trade will probably remain a drag on GDP growth next year."