BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thailand's trade shrank in April and factory output fell for a 13th straight month, underscoring the damage political unrest has caused and the tough job the new military government faces reviving an economy that contracted in the first quarter.
Exports, which account for more than 60 percent of Thai gross domestic product, fell 0.9 percent in April from a year earlier, according to Commerce Ministry data. That compared with the forecast in a Reuters poll for an increase of 0.5 percent.
Imports fell less than projected last month, by 14.5 percent compared with the poll's median of 18.2 percent. But the decline is worrisome, as many of Thailand's imports go into finished goods later exported.
The trade deficit was $1.45 billion, more than twice the forecast $600 million.
Industrial output in April was 3.9 percent lower than a year earlier, the Industry Ministry said. That compared with March's revised drop of 10.5 percent and a 6.4 percent decline seen in a Reuters poll.
The 13-month streak of annual declines in output is the longest since Industry Ministry data become available in 2001.
Exports in April to China were 9.5 percent lower than a year and to Japan were down 4.5 percent. Shipments to the United States rose 0.6 percent and to Europe were up 5.4 percent.
The Commerce Ministry maintained that in the second quarter, exports can still increase 4.0-4.5 percent from last year, even though for January-April, shipments were 1 percent lower than that in the first four months of 2013.
In April, capacity utilisation at factories was 56.6 percent, the lowest since December 2011, when Thailand had severe flooding. For March, it reported 64.5 percent.
The army seized control of the country on May 22, saying it would restore order after nearly seven months of anti-government protests that have hurt confidence, domestic demand, tourism and delayed public works.
TRYING TO TACKLE PROBLEMS
The junta is moving to tackle economic problems to get Southeast Asia's second biggest economy moving. The economy contracted 2.1 percent in the first quarter from the previous three months, and some economists feel a recession is unavoidable.
Tourism, which accounts for about 10 percent of the economy, has taken a hit. Consumer confidence is at a 12-year low, weaker than it had been even after the bad floods of late 2011, violent political unrest in 2010 and a deadly tsunami in late 2004. The Federation of Thai Industries (FTI) said its index of industrial confidence hit a 58-month low in April.
Growth forecasts for Thailand have been cut steadily since the unrest began in November. But some economists think the outlook could improve under the military council that this week started paying money owed to rice farmers. The council said it will speed up spending and that a new state budget will be on time.
"Its actions on the rice-buying scheme, the budget and investment plans should bode well for the economic outlook, at least in the short term," said Thammarat Kittisiripat, an economist with TMB Bank.
"We expect better economic activity in the second half, especially in the fourth quarter, along with improving external demand," he added.
Tim Condon, economist at ING in Singapore, wrote on Wednesday that after the first quarter's 2.1 percent contraction from the prior period, "a recession looks unavoidable. However, the coupmakers are trying to put the economy on the front burner and have paid rice farmers, extended tax cuts and announced accelerated spending on infrastructure projects."
The output and trade numbers released on Wednesday were the first government data on April. Earlier, the Federation of Thai Industries said that vehicle sales in April dropped 33.2 percent from a year earlier.
The vital auto sector has slowed since mid-2013 following the end of a state subsidy for car purchases in 2012, when sales surged 81 percent. The unrest has added to carmarkers' problems and more than 30,000 jobs have been lost this year.
The Thai unit of Honda Motor Co said last week it has cut production at its Ayutthaya plant to 60 percent to reflect weak domestic demand and voiced concerns sales may fall short of its target this year after months of prolonged political unrest.
The Japanese carmaker also has decided to delay by six months to a year the startup of a new $530 million plant from its previously planned April 2015 date.
(Editing by Richard Borsuk)