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Japan exports fall for first time since 2016

Trade war fears contribute to 1.2% drop in September from a year earlier; this follows 6.6% gain in August

Declines in shipments to the United States and China - the two key export destinations for Japan - are a source of concern as each of them accounts for about 20 per cent of Japanese exports.


JAPAN'S exports fell in September for the first time since 2016 as shipments to the United States and China declined, likely impeding third quarter economic growth and adding to concerns about the broadening impact of an escalating Sino-US trade war.

The data comes days after a Reuters poll showed a third of Japanese companies - not just exporters - have been affected by the trade conflict between the world's two biggest economies, and more than half worried about its fallout on their business.

Japanese policymakers also remain wary about the overall economic impact of the international trade frictions. A string of natural disasters that struck Japan has added to the strain on factories, disrupting output and physical distribution.

The US-Sino tariff row has yet to materially hurt trade activity, but a slowdown in external demand has bolstered views that Japan's economy, the world's third largest, likely slowed sharply in the July-September quarter.

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"The economy probably grew only slightly in the third quarter, led by firm consumption and brisk capex. External demand likely made no contribution," said Takeshi Minami, chief economist at Norinchukin Research Institute.

"Assuming the US-China trade frictions have widespread effects on global trade, Japan's exports will struggle to grow." He said declines in shipments to the United States and China - the two key export destinations for Japan - are a source of concern as each of them accounts for about 20 per cent of Japanese exports respectively.

Ministry of Finance (MOF) data out on Thursday showed Japanese exports fell 1.2 per cent in September from a year earlier, against a 1.9 per cent increase expected by economists in a Reuters poll, and followed a 6.6 per cent gain in August.

It was the first decline since November 2016.

In volume terms, exports fell 4.8 per cent in the year to September, the first drop in seven months.

Japan's exports to the US declined 0.2 per cent in the year to September, dragged down by falling shipments of construction and mining machinery, auto parts and medicines.

US-bound auto exports amounted to some 143,000 cars, down 7.0 per cent year-on-year in a snapback from the previous year's brisk shipments, a sign that car sales have levelled off.

Imports from the US rose 3.1 per cent in September, led by crude oil, liquefied petroleum gas, helping reduce Japan's trade surplus with the US by 4.0 per cent year-on-year to US$5.24 billion.

The US Trade Representative's office told Congress on Tuesday it would open trade talks with Japan, describing the country as an important yet underperforming market for US exports. Tokyo and Washington last month agreed to start trade talks in an arrangement that, for now, avoids the worst-case scenario of an imminent 25 per cent tariff on cars.

US President Donald Trump has made clear he is unhappy with Japan's US$69 billion trade surplus with the United States - nearly two-thirds of it from auto exports - and wants a two-way agreement to address it.

Tokyo pushed back on a bilateral Free Trade Agreement Washington had sought, fearing it could put Japan under pressure to open politically sensitive sectors such as agriculture.

Thursday's trade data showed exports to China, Japan's biggest trading partner, fell 1.7 per cent in the year to September, the first decline in seven months, dragged down by semiconductor production equipment.

Shipments to Asia, which account for more than half of Japan's overall exports, rose 0.9 per cent.

Overall imports rose 7.0 per cent in the year to September, versus the median estimate for a 13.7 per cent annual increase.

The trade balance was surplus of 139.6 billion yen, compared with the median estimate for a shortfall of 50.0 billion yen. REUTERS

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