Upbeat start to the year for Asian economies


ASIA BRIEFING:SOME OF Asia’s lead economies have reported an upbeat start to the year, including regional giant Japan. However, sluggish growth in China and fears that a weak Europe would damage exports from the region have cast a pall over the data.

China may have ousted its neighbour and regional rival as the world’s second largest economy a couple of years back, but Japan is a much richer country on a per capita basis, it has a far more open economy and it remains a regional powerhouse.

Long considered the sick man of Asia, Japanese gross domestic product (GDP) rose 1 per cent in the first quarter of the year, despite the ongoing strength of the yen and Europe’s debt crisis. The economy was lifted by consumer spending and reconstruction after the earthquake in March last year.

Economic expansion came after stagnation in the last three months of 2011 and was slightly ahead of forecasts. On an annualised basis, GDP rose 4.1 per cent, considerably more robust than the 3.5 per cent increase expected by economists.

The outlook for the second half understandably remains unclear, given market fears over Europe’s prospects. Even though consumer spending is strong, Japan is heavily reliant on exports, like so many Asian economies. The country will also be watching to see what happens in China.

Certainly, a raft of wobbly figures for April won’t inspire too much confidence. China’s economic growth is forecast to weigh in at a 13-year low this year on the back of sluggish April data, including weak trade figures and the lowest industrial production growth in three years.

“The weaker-than-expected April data and the downside risk associated with the euro zone crisis will likely prompt the government to ease policy further to support growth at home,” said Wang Tao, a strategist at UBS China.

“Nevertheless, policy action has been rather modest so far and additional effort will take time to have real impact. As a result, we have downgraded Q2 [second quarter] 2012 GDP growth from 8.4 per cent to 8 per cent, and the annual GDP growth from 8.5 per cent to 8.2 per cent,” she said.

A sharp deterioration in the euro zone would lead to growth of about 7 per cent in China.

Looking forward, the outlook is far less grim. In a Bloomberg poll, analysts believe China’s economic growth is likely to accelerate in the third quarter for the first time in seven quarters after banks’ reserve requirements were cut.

Forecasts are for GDP expanding by 8.2 per cent this year, the slowest rate of expansion since 7.6 per cent in 1999 and down from 9.2 per cent in 2011.

Intriguingly, some analysts are even more bullish. Government think-tank the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences has forecast growth of 8.7 per cent this year.

Analysts are confident that the Communist Party will make use of its formidable monetary and fiscal war chest to boost the economy as the country prepares for a once- in-a-decade power handover in the autumn.

President Hu Jintao and premier Wen Jiabao will start the process of handing over power to Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang later this year. The party is keen to foster stability, especially given the turmoil following the purging of Chongqing party boss Bo Xilai.

Elsewhere, Indonesia’s economy grew at the slowest pace in 18 months, up 6.3 per cent in the first quarter from a year earlier, but still a creditable figure. Growth is being supported by strong domestic demand and state spending. Looking ahead, a weakening currency could trim domestic demand.

Thailand’s economy shrank by 0.9 per cent in the first three months, but this was much less than the 9 per cent rate at which it had contracted in the previous quarter. The improvement reflected that factories were resuming production and tourists had started coming back after last year’s disastrous flooding.

The Bank of Thailand has raised its economic growth forecast for 2012 to 6 per cent.

Singapore’s economy grew 10 per cent in the first quarter from the previous three months thanks to a surge in manufacturing, or 16 per cent on an annualised basis.

The government said it was sticking to its economic growth projections of between 1 per cent and 3 per cent for 2012. Manufacturing, especially electronics and precision engineering, grew 19.8 per cent on a quarterly basis, after shrinking 11.1 per cent the previous quarter.

Singapore’s trade promotion agency said exports were up an annual 6.1 per cent in the first quarter, reversing a 2.7 per cent fall in the final quarter of 2011.

However, the ministry of trade and industry warned that chances of a “disorderly sovereign debt default in the euro zone” could not be ruled out, and this could hit exports.

“If it materialises, there will be considerable downsides for the global economy and Singapore’s externally oriented industries,” the ministry said.

There have been other positives. Hong Kong’s unemployment rate fell to 3.3 per cent in the three-month period ended April 30th, defying market expectations.

Most analysts believe it will face challenges in the coming months, but as HSBC Greater China economist Donna Kwok said: “The stoutness of local job market conditions underpins our view that besides exports, all other growth drivers are actively supporting the city’s economic growth.”