COLUMN-Japan's energy imports may outweigh stimulus gain: Clyde Russell

Wed Feb 27, 2013 3:26am GMT

--Clyde Russell is a Reuters market analyst. The views expressed are his own.--

By Clyde Russell

LAUNCESTON, Australia, Feb 27 (Reuters) - Much of the focus on "Abenomics" has been on the positive impact for Japan's economy through a weaker yen and stimulus spending, but this ignores the flip side of higher energy imports and costs.

Already this can been seen with Japan's January imports of liquefied natural gas hitting a record 8.23 million tonnes, which cost 607.7 billion yen ($6.5 billion).

If the same amount of LNG had been bought at end of October last year, before newly-elected Prime Minister Shinzo Abe promised about $120 billion in spending by purchasing bonds, it would have cost 525.9 billion yen, or about 13 percent less.

The January data showed that LNG imports grew 1 percent in volume terms, but 11.4 percent in value terms. This is because the yen has fallen by as much as 16 percent since Abe launched the latest plan to drag Japan from chronic recession.

Japan imported 87.31 million tonnes of LNG in 2012, and it's likely that this figure will rise again in 2013 to somewhere closer to 90 million tonnes.

This is largely because the nation's nuclear output remains low, with only 2 of 50 reactors operating currently and no further restarts likely until the third quarter at the earliest.

Progress on restarting nuclear plants will be subject to the tug-of-war between support from Abe's government and a sceptical public still scarred by the Fukushima disaster after the March 2011 earthquake that devastated the north of the main island of Honshu.

Power demand is also likely to rise in 2013 over 2012 on the back of reconstruction efforts after the Tohuku earthquake and increased manufacturing from Abe's economic stimulus.

Japan is also forecasting a hotter-than-average summer this year, which may boost power demand for air-conditioning.

Eastern Japan, which includes the densely populated capital Tokyo, will have a 40 percent chance of higher-than-average temperatures for the June-August period, according to the official meteorological agency.

If LNG imports rise to 90 million tonnes, and assuming LNG prices remain relatively constant in 2013 at around the $801 a tonne Japan paid in January, this would mean a 2013 import bill of around $72.1 billion.

If the yen remains around the current level of 92.02 to the dollar, which isn't much weaker than the recent 33-month high of 94.77, then the cost of LNG imports could hit 6.63 trillion yen, a 10 percent gain on the 2012 figure.

And it's not just LNG import costs that are likely to jump, crude oil and coal will also be subject to the impact of yen depreciation.

It's also likely that Japan will import more coal in 2013 to meet higher electricity demand, and crude demand may rise from the construction sector as stimulus spending ramps up.

Coal imports may jump to as much as 182.3 million tonnes in the fiscal 2013-14 year that starts in April, according to the Institute of Energy Economics Japan, a government-linked thinktank.

This is up from 178 million tonnes the prior fiscal year, meaning Japan could potentially import about 4.3 million tonnes more in the year to March 2014.

Using the exchange rate from last October, the cost of 178 million tonnes of coal, assuming the $114 a tonne that the country paid for thermal coal in January, would be about 1.62 trillion yen.

Assuming steady dollar prices for coal, imports of 182 million tonnes and a yen-dollar rate of the current 92.02, the 2013 import bill may be around 1.9 trillion yen, a 17.5 percent increase.

While crude demand may rise from increased construction and manufacturing activity, this may be offset by utilities using less fuel oil, as they are more likely to turn to coal and LNG for power generation in preference to expensive fuel oil.

Japan imported 3.91 million barrels per day in 2012, and assuming a steady price of $105.9 a barrel, which is what Japan paid in January, the depreciation of the currency may add 15 percent to the import bill.

Japan's total trade deficit for last year was a record 6.927 trillion yen and it's clear that energy imports will put significant upward pressure on that number in 2013.

Abe is no doubt hoping that the stimulus he's planning, and the weaker yen, will boost manufacturing exports by more that the cost of higher energy imports.

Whether he is right or not will be the real test of Abenomics. (Editing by Ed Davies)

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