Japan fell into a trade deficit in April as exports tumbled at their fastest pace in 18 months on supply chain disruptions after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, official data showed Wednesday.
Exports fell 12.5 percent from a year earlier, data released by the finance ministry showed -- the largest fall since October 2009, when trade activity was still weak after the global financial crisis.
Japan logged a deficit of 463.7 billion yen ($5.6 billion), reversing a year-before surplus of 729.2 billion yen, with shipments of cars diving 67.0 percent and those of electronics parts such as microchips dropping 9.0 percent.
Japanese factory production plunged by a record 15.3 percent in March from February due to the impact of the quake, tsunami and a subsequent nuclear crisis, considered the worst since Chernobyl in 1986.
The tsunami halted many nuclear reactors and crippled an atomic power plant on the northeast coast, causing electricity shortages and sparking demand for fuel to be used in thermal power generation.
Exports to China, the biggest market for Japanese products, decreased 6.8 percent to log their first year-on-year fall in 18 months as shipments of cars and car parts plunged.
The overall deficit, however, was smaller than the market average forecast of 700 billion yen as imports marked a slower-than-expected rise.
Japan last ran a trade deficit in January, when the sum reached 479.4 billion yen due to rising commodity prices and weak demand from China ahead of the Lunar New Year holiday.
Overall imports in April rose 8.9 percent to post growth for the 16th consecutive month as purchases of petroleum products shot up 62.2 percent on higher prices and demand.
Economists agreed that Japan would return to trade surplus later this year but were divided on whether the deficit would expand in the coming months.
Hiroshi Watanabe, economist at Daiwa Institute of Research, said Japan's "deficit could widen until after summer as imports are likely to keep expanding".
Exports may have hit bottom in April or may hit in May, while imports are continuing to grow steadily, he said.
"Imports in April did not grow as much as expected... but they will continue to rise (in the coming months) on higher demand for fuel due to the electricity shortage," he said.
Imports of general-use parts for electronics and cars are also likely to increase due to constraints on production in Japan, Watanabe said.
"April was the worst for Japan's trade and I don't think deficits will worsen in the months ahead," said Norio Miyagawa, a senior economist at Mizuho Research and Consulting.
"We may see several more red figures but they will be much smaller than April's," he told Dow Jones Newswires.
The "recent casual surveys suggest a somewhat quick recovery in Japanese exports is likely", he added.
The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) slashed its growth forecasts for Japan due to the quake and tsunami, saying it expected a 0.9 percent contraction this year, but a strong rebound of 2.2 percent in 2012.
"Given the experience of past disasters in Japan and elsewhere, the large negative impact on GDP in the first and second quarters is expected to be reversed quickly as reconstruction efforts get underway," the OECD said.
It had forecast 1.7 percent growth this year and 1.3 percent in 2012 in its previous semi-annual Economic Outlook report before the earthquake.
Bank of Japan Governor Masaaki Shirakawa told an economic forum in Tokyo signs of recovery were already beginning to emerge.
An increasing number of factories are resuming production while there are signs of improved sales at department stores, snapping a plunge in consumer spending immediately after the quake, the central bank chief said.
"Therefore, in the second half of fiscal 2011, the sense of recovery will be somewhat more noticeable, although it will fall short of a V-shaped recovery," he said.