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Shaky Japanese economy hit by growing trade deficit

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Earlier this month, the International Monetary Fund almost halved its 2014 growth projections for Japan - to 0.9 per cent from 1.6 percent - underscoring the damage that an April consumption tax hike inflicted on the economy - PHOTO: REUTERS

[TOKYO] Japan's shaky economy was dealt another blow Wednesday, as official data showed a widening September trade deficit that puts the world's number-three economy on track to log a record annual shortfall.

The worse-than-expected deficit of 958.3 billion yen (US$8.96 billion) comes on the back of a string of weak figures and a sharp contraction in the second-quarter, which raised fears that a recovery in Japan's economy has been derailed.

The latest numbers translated into a trade deficit of 10.47 trillion yen for the first nine months of the year, a 35 per cent leap from a year ago.

Earlier this month, the International Monetary Fund almost halved its 2014 growth projections for Japan - to 0.9 per cent from 1.6 percent - underscoring the damage that an April consumption tax hike inflicted on the economy.

And on Tuesday, the government downgraded its outlook for the economy for the second month in a row.

"The government and Bank of Japan (BoJ) have assumed that the domestic economy may be weak due to the consumption tax rise, but that it would be offset by foreign demand," said Takeshi Minami, an economist at Norinchukin Research Institute.

"That scenario may be collapsing. China is slowing down and there are risks of Europe entering recession." The gloomy figures will heap more pressure on the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his economic growth plan, dubbed "Abenomics".

The plan stalled when Tokyo raised sales taxes on April 1 - for the first time in 17 years - to help pay down one of the world's biggest public debt burdens.

Mr Abe's plan helped sharply weaken the yen as the central bank launched massive monetary stimulus.

But the currency's drop has not translated into a strong pick-up in exports as Japanese companies shift production to lower-cost venues abroad.

- Tax rise uncertain - ====================== Japan's September deficit of 958.3 billion yen was a record for the month, up from 943.2 billion yen a year earlier, and it was much worse than a market median forecast of a 768-billion-yen deficit.

The shortfall was up 1.6 per cent year-on-year.

The finance ministry said exports rose 6.9 per cent to 6.38 trillion yen helped by higher shipments of cars, steel, and ships.

Shipments to China rose 8.8 per cent, while exports to North America rose 4.7 per cent and were nearly flat to the European Union, inching up 0.7 per cent.

Imports climbed 6.2 per cent to 7.34 trillion yen, boosted largely by purchases of liquefied natural gas and telecommunications equipment, which was partly tied to the launch of the newest iPhone in Japan last month.

Natural gas buying remain high as Japan tried to plug a yawning energy gap after the 2011 Fukushima crisis forced the shutdown of nuclear reactors, which once supplied more than one-quarter of the nation's power.

Japan's economy contracted 1.8 per cent on-quarter in the three months to June - or 7.1 per cent on an annualised basis - its steepest quarterly drop since the quake-tsunami disaster, raising concerns about another downturn in the July-September period.

Japan has been hit by lacklustre economic data since sales tax was raised to 8.0 per cent from 5.0 per cent on April 1 to help reduce one of the world's heaviest public debt burdens.

Abe has yet to issue a final decision on whether Tokyo will launch a second tax hike to 10 per cent next year. AFP