Asia manufacturing eases in January

Manufacturing activity across Asia expanded in January as the global economy slowly picks up, a widely watched barometer showed Friday, but moderations in China and India suggested recovery remains tentative.

In China, the official purchasing managers' index (PMI) was 50.4 in January, a slight reduction from 50.6 in the previous month, according to the China Federation of Logistics and Purchasing and the National Bureau of Statistics.

The PMI is a widely watched barometer of economic health, with a reading above 50 indicating expansion while anything below points to contraction.

British bank HSBC -- whose survey focuses more on smaller enterprises -- said its final PMI for China stood at a two-year high of 52.3 in January, up from a preliminary 51.9 released last week and a final 51.5 in December.

HSBC said India's PMI slipped to 53.2 in January from 54.7 in the previous month, snapping four straight months of gains, as slower new orders and power supply problems hit output.

But the figures remained in positive territory.

The latest batch of readings came after Congress in Washington delayed the US debt ceiling crisis by suspending its borrowing limit, averting a potentially catastrophic default.

But the US economy contracted in the fourth quarter, while the eurozone debt crisis continued.

Analysts said the official China reading was unlikely to distress investors significantly as the figure is usually distorted around the Chinese New Year holiday, which falls on February 10 this year, as business flows turn down.

"We believe the Chinese economy and its related asset markets will remain in a sweet spot in the near term," said Bank of America Merrill Lynch economists Lu Ting and Hu Weijun in a research note.

Qu Hongbin, a Hong Kong-based economist with HSBC, said in a statement: "China's manufacturing activity is gaining further steam on the back of improving domestic conditions. We see increasing signals of a sustained growth recovery in the coming months."

China's economy expanded 7.8 percent last year, its lowest annual figure since 1999, in the face of weakness at home and in key overseas markets.

But it grew 7.9 percent in the final three months of 2012 from a year earlier as industrial output and retail sales strengthened, snapping seven straight quarters of slowing growth.

In India, Siddhartha Sanyal, an economist with Barclays Capital, said he would "not read too much" into the PMI fall. "The index has been hovering in the mid-50s level for some time, it is not too worrisome," he told AFP.

But HSBC's PMI for Indonesia showed the manufacturing sector contracting for last month for the first time since May, partly due to floods in Jakarta that disrupted supply chains and production processes.

The country's January PMI was 49.7, down from 50.7 in the previous month, the report said.

Elsewhere in Asia, South Korea's index edged down to 49.9 from 50.1, while in Taiwan it rose to 51.5 from 50.6, the fastest rate of growth since last March.

Vietnam crossed into expansionary territory, to 50.1, from 49.3.

In Australia, the manufacturing sector contracted for the 11th straight month in January, with slowing domestic economic growth adding to the problems of a strong local dollar and soft demand.

The Australian Industry Group performance of manufacturing index dropped 4.1 points to 40.2 in the month.

"The well-entrenched pressures that have been confronting the manufacturing sector for several years are being compounded by a slowing in the broader economy," the group's chief executive Innes Willox said.

"Successive interest rate reductions have not yet turned conditions around."