MUMBAI, March 20 (Reuters) - Asia's top companies were slightly more upbeat about their business outlook in the first quarter than at the end of last year, despite lingering concerns about the global economy, rising costs and volatile currencies, the latest Thomson Reuters/INSEAD Asia Business Sentiment Survey published on Wednesday showed.
The Thomson Reuters/INSEAD Asia Business Sentiment Index climbed 2 points to 65 in March, rising for the second consecutive quarter. The had index dropped to 62 in September, a fall of 7 points from the June survey, before nudging up 1 point in December.
A reading above 50 indicates an overall positive outlook.
AUSTRALIA: SIGNIFICANTLY BETTER (INDEX AT 63 vs 53 Q4)
Business confidence among companies in Australia improved for the third successive quarter, propelling the country's sentiment index to its highest level since the first quarter of 2012. Fewer participants were worried about the global economy, though rising prices were a concern.
Of the eight respondents, two companies were positive while six were neutral about the business outlook. In the previous quarter when there were 19 respondents, four were positive, 12 neutral and three negative.
Fewer than 50 percent of the participants said world economic uncertainty was their top worry, a big shift from nearly three-quarters in the December survey. Three companies said their new orders increased, while five said orders were the same.
CHINA: DOWNBEAT, MATCHES ALL-TIME LOW (INDEX AT 50 VS 64 IN Q4)
Corporate sentiment in China turned shaky after a rebound in December, weighed down by global economic uncertainty and rising prices. All eight respondents were neutral on their business outlook, but the index slumped to match a record low struck in the September survey.
Three companies said the world economy was their biggest concern, two cited inflation, and one said other risks were a primary worry. One respondent said employment levels improved, compared with three in the previous survey. While two said new orders were higher, five said they remained the same.
Citing rising costs as the biggest hurdle, companies in India tempered their outlook to pull the index down from December's level.
Of five respondents, three were positive and two neutral, a significant change from all seven who were positive in the previous quarter. Three companies said rising prices were the biggest challenge, while one cited other risks.
No one saw the global economy as a worry, compared with three in the previous survey. Four companies said new orders were higher, while one said sales remained the same.
Lupin Ltd, India's fourth-largest drugmaker by sales, was among the participants.
Business sentiment in Japan was slightly better, but the global economic environment, volatile currency fluctuations and rising costs remained major roadblocks to any strong rebound from the 2012 low struck in December.
Off the 22 respondents, which included Daiichi Sankyo Co Ltd, Toshiba Corp, Hitachi Ltd and Sharp Corp, one was positive on the outlook, one negative and 20 neutral. In the previous survey, two participants were negative and none positive.
Ten companies said the world economy posed the biggest challenge, while five cited currency swings and four said rising costs were their primary concern.
Business confidence was unchanged for the second quarter in a row, after its September pullback from its lowest level since the third quarter of 2011.
All 13 respondents, including Hyundai Heavy Industries Co Ltd, were neutral about their outlook. An overwhelming majority said the global economy was their top business risk, while three saw foreign exchange volatility as a concern.
TAIWAN: SURGES TO HIGHEST SINCE YEAR AGO (INDEX AT 88 VS 33 IN Q4)
Optimism returned to lift Taiwan's sentiment index to its highest level since a year earlier, up from deep in negative territory in December.
Three out of four respondents turned positive in their outlook, compared with none in the previous survey. Most companies saw economic uncertainty as the biggest risk to their business, while one said currency swings posed the top worry.
Acer Inc and Yuanta Financial Holdings Co were among those taking part in the survey.
SOUTHEAST ASIA: MOSTLY UPBEAT (PHILIPPINES, MALAYSIA AT 100; SINGAPORE AT 61; INDONESIA 75; THAILAND 60)
Sentiment in Southeast Asia was mostly optimistic, with Malaysia and the Philippines maintaining their unanimous confidence as all 13 respondents from the two countries were optimistic about their business outlook.
Singapore's confidence strengthened, with two out of nine companies reporting positive sentiment, while eight said the global economy remained the biggest risk.
Thailand's sentiment index dropped to its lowest level since the third quarter of 2012, with just one out of five respondents positive about the business outlook, compared with three who were positive in the earlier survey.
Indonesia, the region's biggest economy, eased slightly but three respondents were positive on the their outlook, up from two in the last quarter.
** Companies sampled for the survey may change from one quarter to the next.