Japan logs current account surplus for 4th straight month

Japan logged a current account surplus for the fourth consecutive month in May, as growth in direct investment income outweighed a trade deficit triggered by a rise in fossil fuel imports, government data showed Monday.

The surplus in the balance, one of the widest gauges of international trade, stood at 540.7 billion yen, up 58.1 percent from a year earlier, the Finance Ministry said in a preliminary report. Last month, it surged 100.8 percent.

The income account, which reflects how much Japan earns from its foreign investments, marked a surplus of 1,522.8 billion yen, up 8.6 percent on year, buoyed by higher dividends and profits from securities investments on the back of the depreciation of the yen.

Goods trade saw a deficit of 906.7 billion yen, as imports climbed 9.6 percent to 6,433.6 billion yen, while exports expanded 9.1 percent to 5,526.9 billion yen with the Japanese currency weakening. The trade deficit was the biggest for the month of May since comparable data became available in 1985.

A falling yen usually supports exports by making Japanese firms' products cheaper abroad and increases the value of overseas revenue in yen terms, but it pushes up import prices.

Import costs have also been rising as demand for natural gas and oil has been growing from power companies for fossil fuel-based power generation as an alternative to nuclear power following the Fukushima nuclear accident in March 2011. Japan depends on imports for more than 90 percent of its energy needs.

The yen slid against the U.S. dollar by 26.8 percent from a year earlier on an average basis and the euro by 28.5 percent, according to the ministry.

In May, the services sector, including passenger transportation and cargo shipping, posted a surplus of 44.1 billion yen as the number of foreign travelers to Japan rose 31.2 percent on year to 875,400, the government said. The number of Japanese traveling overseas fell 11.8 percent to 1.26 million.

Analysts said Japan's current account balance is likely to maintain a surplus for the time being, as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's economic policies, centering on drastic monetary easing by the Bank of Japan, could keep the yen low, which would help boost the country's income account further.

"The weaker yen is expected to continue to raise the value of income generated from overseas assets" that the Japanese hold, including foreign bonds and securities, said Takeshi Minami, chief economist at the Norinchukin Research Institute.

But he added the nation's trade deficit may persist until the middle of fiscal 2014 through March 2015, given the planned sales tax hikes in two stages to 10 percent from the current 5 percent by 2015.

Japanese consumers could rush to make purchases before the first stage of the tax hike to 8 percent from April 2014, igniting domestic demand later this fiscal year and driving up imports, Minami said.