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[TOKYO] Japan's exports in November fell at the fastest pace in almost three years as shipments to Asia declined in a worrying sign that weakness in overseas demand could curb economic growth.
Japan's gross domestic product is likely to avoid a contraction for the time being as domestic demand has performed better than expected, but declining exports highlight the risks that China's slowdown and turmoil in emerging markets pose to the outlook.
Ministry of Finance data showed on Thursday that exports fell 3.3 per cent in November from a year earlier, more than the median estimate for a 1.5 per cent annual decline in a Reuters poll. That was the biggest decline since a 5.8 per cent year-on-year fall in December 2012.
The Bank of Japan is expected to keep monetary policy steady on Friday following the U.S. Federal Reserve's first interest rate increase in a decade. Worries about overseas demand could complicate the BOJ's task next year as it tries to get inflation to accelerate toward its 2 per cent price target.
"There is still a lot of uncertainty about China," said Shuji Tonouchi, senior fixed income strategist at Mitsubishi UFJ Morgan Stanley Securities.
"The risks to exports are pointed to the downside. There are still a lot of questions about how the Fed's monetary policy will affect emerging markets." Exports to China fell 8.1 per cent in November from a year ago, the biggest decline since February, due to lower shipments of plastics and electronic parts.
Shipments to Asia - which account for about a half of Japan's overall exports - fell 8.7 per cent in November, the biggest decline since July 2012.
Exports to the United States, a major buyer of Japanese products, rose 2.0 per cent in November, due to gains in cars and pesticides, but that was slower than a 6.3 per cent year-on-year increase in October.
Imports fell 10.2 per cent in November versus a year ago, swinging the trade balance to a deficit of 379.7 billion yen (S$4.38 billion). The median estimate was for an 8.3 per cent annual decline in imports and a 446.2 billion yen trade deficit.
Some economists speculate the BOJ could ease policy as early as next month as declining oil prices force the central bank to cut its consumer price growth forecasts.
Weak exports are another worry, because they suggest corporate profits could slow, which could in turn weigh on workers' wages and capital expenditure.
There are also concerns that the Fed's rate hike will draw money out of emerging markets, which could further undermine overseas demand.