Japan's exports extend gains, machinery orders fall amid fragile recovery

Japanese exports grew 37 per cent year-on-year in July.
Japanese exports grew 37 per cent year-on-year in July.PHOTO: AFP

TOKYO (REUTERS) - Japan's exports marked a fifth straight month of double-digit growth last month, driven by United States-bound shipments of cars in a positive sign for a trade-led economy, although a key gauge of capital spending fell for the first time in four months.

The mixed batch of indicators underscored fragility in the world's third-largest economy, which grew 1.3 per cent in the April-June quarter due to solid exports and a surprise gain in private consumption.

However, prolonged coronavirus curbs on bars, restaurants and other face-to-face service sector businesses cloud the outlook, piling pressure on Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga to deploy another big stimulus package.

Ministry of Finance data out on Wednesday (Aug 18) showed Japanese exports grew 37 per cent year on year last month, a tad slower than a 39 per cent increase expected by economists in a Reuters poll, although the gain was exaggerated by the contrast to the prior year's Covid--19-induced slump.

It followed a 48.6 per cent growth in the prior month.

"Exports remained in an uptrend, which will continue in the coming months even though car production may face supply constraint due to chip shortages," said SMBC Nikko Securities chief economist Yoshimasa Maruyama.

"Although the service sector may take a hit from a prolonged Covid-19 pandemic, corporate capital spending and output will stay on firm footing," he said.

Still, Mr Suga may roll out stimulus package of around 30 trillion yen (S$373 billion), which will be used as a show of political will to back the economy at the time of the elections, Mr Maruyama added.

By region, exports to China, Japan's largest trading partner, rose 18.9 per cent in the year to last month, led by chip-making equipment and plastic, the data showed.

US-bound shipments, another key market for Japanese goods, grew 26.8 per cent last month led by exports of cars, car parts and motors, it showed.

Imports rose 28.5 per cent in the year to last month, versus the median estimate for a 35.1 per cent increase, bringing the trade balance to a surplus of 441 billion yen, compared with the median estimate for a 202.3 billion yen surplus.

Brisk external demand has helped underpin Japan's factory activity although a global chip shortage and signs of stalling in China's economic recovery are sources of concern.

Separate data by the Cabinet Office showed core machinery orders, a highly volatile indicator of capital spending for the coming six to nine months, fell 1.5 per cent in June from the previous month, versus a 2.8 per cent decline expected by economists in a Reuters poll.

Year on year, core orders, which exclude those of ships and electricity utilities, jumped 18.6 per cent in June, a third straight month of annual gain, prompting the Cabinet Office to maintain its view machinery orders are showing signs of pick-up.