TOKYO — Japan’s economy shrank at an annual rate of 3.7 percent in the first quarter, tipping the country into a recession, as the March 11 earthquake and tsunami disrupted production and prompted consumers to cut back on spending.
The drop-off, reported Thursday, was worse than economists had expected. Among 23 economists surveyed by Bloomberg, the average projection was for a drop of 1.9 percent.
The figures also indicated Japan’s second consecutive quarter of economic contraction, leading the country, by most assessments, into its second recession in less than three years.
Economists project that the Japanese economy will shrink again in the current quarter, which ends in June, as production continues to falter and weigh on industrial output and exports.
Still, some data suggest that the recession may be deep but quick.
Machinery orders, an indicator of future capital spending, increased unexpectedly in March, while manufacturers said recently that they hoped to return to normal production more quickly than initially forecast.
“Japan’s economy is expected to remain weak for the time being,” Kaoru Yosano, Japan’s economics minister, told reporters after the figures were announced Thursday morning. Supply constraints were easing, and reconstruction demand would most likely be felt later this year, Mr. Yosano said.
“The economy has the strength to bounce back,” he said.
Masamichi Adachi, an economist at JPMorgan Chase in Tokyo, said in a research note that the “immediate impact from the disaster on March 11 was larger than we had expected.”
But he echoed Mr. Yosano’s sentiment, adding that “monthly data and anecdotal information suggest that economic activity has bottomed in March and an improvement likely will continue.”
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