By Tetsushi Kajimoto
TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan's export growth is forecast to have accelerated in February as shipments recovered from a Lunar New Year slowdown, which along with slower import growth is expected see the trade deficit narrow from record levels, a Reuters poll shows.
Lackluster exports have been a concern for policymakers, who are counting on shipments to help cushion an expected dent in domestic activity from next month when the sales tax rate rises to 8 percent from the current 5 percent.
Despite the sharp fall in the yen since late 2012, which has pushed up the cost of imports, there has not been a significant boost in export volumes, in part because of exporters' reluctance to cut prices.
The Reuters poll found exports are expected to have risen 12.4 percent in February from a year earlier, led by brisk car shipments to the United States. If realized, it would be the first time since October that export growth has accelerated from the previous month.
Imports are forecast to have increased an annual 7.4 percent, the median estimate of 27 economists showed, leading to an expected trade deficit of 590.0 billion yen ($5.78 billion).
While that would be well below January's record trade shortfall of 2.79 trillion yen, it would still extend the record run of deficits to 20 months. The Ministry of Finance will release the data on Wednesday at 8:50 a.m. (Tuesday 7.50 p.m.ET).
"The trade data may be positive to the economy, but when looking at January-February figures on average, exports have not grown so strongly," said Minoru Nogimori, economist at Nomura Securities in Tokyo.
Exports rose an annual 9.5 percent in January, and imports rose 25.0 percent.
"It will take some time for global demand to fully recover. Therefore I expect that Japan's exports will recover with a lag in the latter half of this year," Nogimori said.
The trade data comes a week after the Bank of Japan downgraded its view on exports, saying they had leveled off, although it did raise its assessment on capital spending and sounded more upbeat on factory output.
BOJ Governor Haruhiko Kuroda said factors such as the Lunar New Year holidays in Asia, extreme cold weather in the United States and strong consumer demand in Japan ahead of the sales tax rise had led to recent subdued export performance.
Kuroda did expect exports to recover in coming months. Any sign that was not happening would heighten concerns about a broader economic slowdown after the sales tax rise takes effect.
Persistent trade shortfalls would also raise concerns that Japan may face deficits on the current account and fiscal front in coming years, chipping away at its vast pool of domestic savings needed to cheaply finance its mammoth public debt.
($1 = 102.1300 Japanese yen)
(Editing by John Mair)