Asian policy makers are hoping a rebound in 2014 …

Asian policy makers in 2014 are hoping a rebound in the industrialised world will restore their economies to a healthier growth trajectory. But data released yesterday, the first of the New Year, shows that demand from the US and Europe is playing a less important role in many Asian nations than in the past.

Purchasing managers indexes, a proxy for gross domestic product, signaled that manufacturing activity in the region continues to expand. The pace of expansion, though, slowed in some countries and export orders remained generally weak, signaling a pickup in the US, Europe and Japan is failing to jump-start Asia’s export-dependent economies.

HSBC’s China PMI slipped to 50.5 in December from 50.8 in November, a day after China’s official PMI fell to 51.0 in December from 51.4. Any result above 50 indicates expansion, while one below that shows contraction. South Korea’s HSBC PMI rose to 50.8 in December from November’s 50.4.

In both countries, the “new export orders” subcomponent of the PMI contracted. That has confounded some observers, who were expecting stronger numbers given a recovery in the US, which many economists expect to grow by 3% in 2014, and Europe’s tentative exit from recession.

“Today’s numbers really do point to a structural problem for Asian exports,” said Frederic Neumann, a Hong Kong-based economist with HSBC. “The headline numbers suggest steady growth across Asia, but the trade cycle isn’t really firing up.” In part, Asia has become less dependent on the US In 2012, 13.6% of East Asian exports went to the US, down from 23.8% in 2000, according to the Asian Development Bank. Local demand is playing a larger role in many economies, particularly China, and intra-regional trade has become more important.

The mixed picture in Asia might signal weak consumer spending in the US, where the income of median households has hardly budged in the past year. Neumann argued that Asia also has been losing competitiveness due to higher labor and production costs in many nations.

Some of the data yesterday was more positive. In Taiwan, an integral part of global electronics production, the HSBC PMI rose to 55.2 from November’s 53.4, its biggest jump since April 2011. New export orders were at a 32-month high. Taiwan, like South Korea, is more exposed to the US than China.

Taiwanese exports account for about three-quarters of GDP, compared with around a quarter for China. Taiwan’s solid export orders in recent months might be linked to global smartphone orders, which can be volatile, many analysts say. Other economies in the region that rely more on domestic demand or export more to China than the West, notably Indonesia and India, also are failing to benefit from better industrialised world demand.

Indonesia’s commodity-driven economy has fared poorly of late due to weaker growth in China, a major buyer of its nickel and coal.

Indonesia’s HSBC PMI expanded to 50.9 from 50.3. But export orders remained flat, suggesting most of the improvement in manufacturing activity came from domestic demand. The country posted a trade surplus of $777 million in November, largely because imports have choked off as economic growth slows. In India, which counts China as its largest trading partner, HSBC’s PMI slipped to 50.7 in December from 51.3 a month earlier.

Some analysts said they expected Asia’s economies to show improvements in the year ahead as the US consumer becomes more confident. That will benefit countries like South Korea and Taiwan that make electronics, autos and other goods for Western markets. “This is looking to be the year that the US consumer, with a degree of pent-up demand, returns as the primary driver of the global economy,” said Glenn Maguire, chief Asia-Pacific economist at ANZ. Dow Jones, Gulf Times

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