SINGAPORE/NEW DELHI Business sentiment among Asia's top companies fell for the second straight quarter, dragged down by export-orientated economies such as China and Japan, while domestic spending helped boost Southeast Asia's outlook, a Thomson Reuters/INSEAD survey showed.
Concerns over global demand are hurting Asia's export engines, with autos, technology and shipping sectors among the least upbeat in the survey. Sectors more exposed to domestic growth were much more optimistic.
The Thomson Reuters/INSEAD Asia Business Sentiment Index fell to 62 in the third quarter from 69 in the second quarter of 2012, having peaked at 80 in the first quarter of 2011. A reading above 50 indicates an overall positive outlook, while one below 50 points to pessimism.
The results reflect the broad economic trends in the region, where growth in Southeast Asia is holding up much better than in many other countries as domestic consumption picks up. In China, where exports support an estimated 200 million jobs, growth is widely expected to slide this year to its weakest since 1999.
"Countries such as the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia have generally seen upgrades to GDP forecasts, which have been at odds with the rest of the world," said Gary Dugan, chief investment officer for Asia and Middle East at private bank Coutts.
"As long as they haven't got caught up with the recent down-leg in the United States, it could be that the next wave of optimism will come from Fed policy and therefore they continue to see upgrades to forecasts and continued flows of international money."
The Federal Reserve said last week it would pump $40 billion a month into the U.S. economy until the jobs market shows sustained improvement, boosting global markets.
The index surveyed 200 of the Asia-Pacific's top companies in 11 economies. There were 97 responses.
The poll, conducted by Thomson Reuters in association with INSEAD, a global management and business school, was compiled between Sept 3-14 and covered sectors such as autos, financial, property, resources and technology.
PDF version of survey: r.reuters.com/byh72t
Link to INSIDER video clip: link.reuters.com/zad72t
Indonesia and the Philippines had the highest score in the survey of 100, followed by Malaysia and Singapore. India was at 80.
In contrast, China recorded its weakest level of sentiment since the survey began in 2009. It showed companies on the cusp between pessimism and optimism with a reading of 50, down from 55 in the second quarter, suggesting they are seeing little lift so far from various measures put in place by Beijing to try to boost the economy.
China's export outlook remains severe and external demand in coming months may be weaker than in the first eight months of the year, Commerce Ministry spokesman Shen Danyang said on Wednesday.
"Our export outlook will still be grim in the coming months," he told a news conference.
GROWTH IN SOUTHEAST ASIA
Companies in Southeast Asia, a region of about 600 million people, are benefiting from an increase in foreign investment and public spending from governments with much healthier budget positions than their Western counterparts. That has lifted domestic consumption by a rapidly expanding middle class.
Thai Union Frozen Products Pcl (TUF.BK), the world's biggest canned tuna maker, which took part in the survey, was upbeat. In August, it maintained a revenue growth target of 15 percent in 2012.
In Singapore, robust retail consumption is supporting the outlook for firms such as StarHub Ltd (STAR.SI), the country's second-biggest telecoms firm.
"We are a domestic focused company which puts us in a more favourable position," said Jeannie Ong, StarHub's head of investor relations. "From the past few downturns, we have come out not too bad."
Total credit in Southeast Asia is the highest since the 1997 regional financial crisis, much of it put to use through credit cards, car loans and mortgages.
The survey showed sentiment in Asia's property sector improved significantly, with five of 10 companies surveyed responding with a positive view on their outlook, while the others were neutral. Developers in Singapore and the Philippines were the most upbeat.
Investors have pushed up the Philippines and Thailand to among the world's best performing stock markets this year, with gains of 22 percent and 24 percent. MSCI's Asia-Pacific ex-Japan index is up 12 percent.
"I don't think the scepticism about Europe is going to go away with the Fed policy. The money that might have gone into Europe will come over to Asia. There's still lots of cash that needs to find a home and wants to be invested," said Coutts' Dugan.
Sentiment among Australian companies also picked up - rising to 50 from 42 - with most respondents reporting that new orders were steady or higher.
The outcome surprised some analysts given speculation over whether Australia's resources boom has come to an end as China's demand growth fades.
"Maybe it is more hope that interest rates will come down, boosting growth," said Shane Oliver, head of investment strategy from AMP Capital Investment.
Australia's central bank cut its policy rate four times between November and June and has indicated it has room for further reductions.
Global economic uncertainty was the key risk factor cited by 54 of the 97 respondents, followed by 15 companies citing "other" risks that included domestic uncertainty and oil prices. Eight companies said rising costs were the key risk.
Japanese respondents were the least upbeat since the fourth quarter of last year. Seventeen companies reported a neutral outlook, two were negative and one positive.
Indian companies were more positive than they were in the previous quarter. Sentiment may have been lifted further last week by government reforms aimed at reviving growth in Asia's third-largest economy, including opening up its supermarket sector to foreign chains.
(Additional reporting by Matt Driskill in SINGAPORE, Aileen Wang and Nick Edwards in BEIJING, and Thuy Ong in Sydney; Editing by Neil Fullick and Ryan Woo)
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