JAKARTA, March 20 (Reuters) - Asia's top companies grew slightly more confident in their outlook in the first quarter, the second consecutive quarter of rising optimism, according to the latest Thomson Reuters/INSEAD Asia Business Sentiment Survey.
The Thomson Reuters/INSEAD Asia Business Sentiment Index rose to 65 in March from 63 in December, when it rose by 1 point from the September survey. A reading above 50 indicates a generally positive outlook.
All nine automakers polled reported a neutral outlook, suggesting ongoing anxiety about economic uncertainty and foreign exchange volatility. New orders improved as four firms saw higher orders compared with two firms in the previous quarter. Indonesia's Astra International took part in the survey.
Sentiment for the building sector rebounded in the first quarter after a decline in the previous two quarters. All four companies had a neutral view. Two of the participants cited global economic uncertainty as a risk, and another said low consumer confidence marred the outlook.
The index for financials reached its highest level in a year, with four firms reporting a positive outlook and none a negative view. Most said global economic uncertainty remained the biggest concern. Indonesian mid-size lender Bank Permata took part in the survey.
Food and beverages companies were the most bullish with an index reading of 88 for the quarter, reaching its highest mark since this survey started in 2009. Rising costs were a concern for half of the companies in the survey, and five respondents said new orders were likely to increase. Japan's Kirin Brewery and Philippine's Universal Robina were among the respondents.
Two of the eight drugmakers had a positive outlook for the first quarter, a contrast from the previous quarter when four respondents were positive. In the main, drugmakers cited global economic uncertainty and rising costs as their biggest concerns. Japan's Daiichi Sankyo Co Ltd and India's Lupin Pharmaceuticals were among those polled.
Sentiment among property firms brightened in the first quarter with five of 10 respondents reporting a positive outlook. Most firms saw global economic uncertainty as the biggest concern, though said levels of employment were expected to increase. One company cited intensified competition as the biggest risk.
Six of the 13 resources firms polled were positive on their outlook and no respondents had a negative view, an improvement from the previous quarter. Two participants said regulatory uncertainty was the biggest risk they faced. Asia's biggest thermal coal exporter PT Bumi Resources and Indonesia's No.2 coal miner PT Adaro Energy took part in the survey.
The outlook darkened for retail companies, with global economic uncertainty and rising costs named as the biggest risks.
All 11 respondents, which included Thailand's CP ALL , Japan's Fast Retailing and casino operator Galaxy Entertainment Group Ltd, had a neutral view. No firm took a positive outlook, compared with four in the previous quarter.
Sentiment for shipping companies has been volatile over the past 12 months. All eight respondents surveyed in the first quarter had a neutral outlook, poorer than the previous quarter when two participants had a positive view. One respondent reported a decline in new orders while the others had unchanged sales. South Korea's Hyundai Heavy Industries was among the participants.
Technology firms were more upbeat. Five of 12 companies polled were positive about their outlook, six were neutral, and one was negative. In the last survey, 10 of 14 participants were neutral and three were positive. The majority of the tech companies, including Japan's Toshiba Corp and PLDT from the Philippines, surveyed cited global economic uncertainty as their biggest business risk. One said political instability was their biggest risk.
Note: ** Companies sampled for the survey may change from one quarter to the next. No airlines participated in the Q1 2013 survey.