TOKYO • Buoyant sales of cars and electronics led Japan's exports to a 14th straight month of growth last month, but manufacturers' business confidence slid - highlighting fears of the rising yen disrupting an export-led recovery.
The trade data came on the heels of the Reuters Tankan survey that found Japanese manufacturers' confidence deteriorated sharply this month, pointing to global stock market turmoil and the yen undermining business sentiment.
Such variable indicators underscore the challenge facing the Bank of Japan's leadership trio - re-appointed Governor Haruhiko Kuroda and two new deputies - as they work to stimulate the economy out of decades of stagnation.
The low mood of manufacturers in the Tankan survey was at odds with Ministry of Finance data out yesterday showing exports grew 12.2 per cent year-on-year last month, topping the prior month's 9.3 per cent gain and economists' estimate of a 10.3 per cent rise.
Yesterday's news also followed gross domestic product (GDP) data out last week showing Japan recorded its eighth straight quarter of economic expansion over October-December.
A strong currency eats into Japanese manufacturers' profits and could disrupt the virtuous circle of business investment, consumer spending and growth that the authorities have struggled to set in motion.
"Our consolidated profits have deteriorated because of a strong yen," a manager of a transport equipment maker wrote in the survey.
Year-on-year growth in exports last month, according to Ministry of Finance data.
Economists believe global demand should continue to drive Japanese exports and the broader economy in the coming months, even though the rising yen clouds the outlook.
Sustained yen appreciation of 5 per cent would lower GDP-based real exports by 0.2 per cent in the first year, 1.1 per cent in the second and 1.2 per cent in the third year, which may not be fatal but cannot be ignored, said chief economist Yoshimasa Maruyama at SMBC Nikko Securities.
"We don't forecast exports to sputter but need to bear in mind the risk that a strong yen may curb their driving force."
The Reuters Tankan sentiment index for manufacturers stood at 29 this month, down from the previous month's 11-year high of 35, the survey conducted from Jan 31 to Feb 14 found. The monthly poll closely tracks the Bank of Japan's key quarterly tankan.
Yesterday's trade data showed exports to China, Japan's biggest trading partner, jumped 30.8 per cent year-on-year last month, due in part to an export surge before the Chinese New Year that happened later than last year's.
The gain was led by semiconductor production equipment, car engines and hybrid cars.
Shipments to Asia as a whole, which account for more than half of Japan's exports, grew 16 per cent in the year to January.
US-bound shipments rose 1.2 per cent in the year to January, led by steel, batteries and medicine, while car shipments declined 3.9 per cent.
Japan's trade surplus with the United States fell an annual 12.3 per cent last month to 349.6 billion yen (S$4.3 billion), a second declining month.