Japan's first trade deficit since 1980 raises debt doubts

Wed Jan 25, 2012 9:35am EST
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By Kaori Kaneko and Tetsushi Kajimoto

TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan's first annual trade deficit in more than 30 years calls into question how much longer the country can rely on exports to help finance a huge public debt without having to turn to fickle foreign investors.

The aftermath of the March earthquake raised fuel import costs while slowing global growth and the yen's strength hit exports, data released on Wednesday showed, swinging the 2011 trade balance into deficit.

Few analysts expect Japan to immediately run a deficit in the current account, which includes trade and returns on the country's huge portfolio of investments abroad. A steady inflow of profits and capital gains from overseas still outweighs the trade deficit.

But the trade figures underscore a broader trend of Japan's declining global competitive edge and a rapidly ageing population, compounding the immediate problem of increased reliance on fuel imports due to the loss of nuclear power.

Only four of the country's 54 nuclear power reactors are running due to public safety fears following the March disaster.

"What it means is that the time when Japan runs out of savings -- 'Sayonara net creditor country' -- that point is coming closer," said Jesper Koll, head of equities research at JPMorgan in Japan.

"It means Japan becomes dependent on global savings to fund its deficit and either the currency weakens or interest rates rise."

That prospect could give added impetus to Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda's push to double Japan's 5 percent sales tax in two stages by October 2015 to fund the bulging social security costs of a fast-ageing society.   Continued...

<p>Workers load a container onto a cargo ship at a port in Tokyo August 15, 2011. REUTERS/Issei Kato</p>