If, as Bob Dylan once famously croaked, “The answer is blowin’ in the wind,” then Asia’s macroeconomic weather vanes are indicating fair to medium tailwinds, albeit with a risk of low pressure.
The outlook certainly looks better now than it did a year ago. Fourth quarter 2013 data from major markets beat analyst expectations, and the JPMorgan-Markit global Purchasing Managers Index reached 53.3 in December, the highest reading since April 2011.
The eurozone is forecast to move out of recession this year, with PMI data — which has consistently led GDP growth — suggesting further expansion, boosted by rising consumption in the U.K. and the improved performance of periphery countries. Most analysts expect this to lead to accelerating GDP growth in 2015 and 2016.
Against a backdrop of burgeoning consumer confidence and low natural gas prices, U.S. GDP also is predicted to grow more quickly in 2014 than it did last year.
Indeed, global economic output is set to expand 3.5 percent in 2014, up from an estimated 2.9 percent last year, according to global research and consulting firm PwC.
Improved stability in key markets appears certain to benefit major exporting economies in Asia, as well as ocean carriers, rail operators and airlines that ship their goods.
Rajiv Biswas, Asia-Pacific chief economist for IHS, said accelerating global growth would be a major boost for Asia this year, especially for countries such as South Korea, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand that have a high share of exports relative to total GDP.
“The economic outlook for China is also helped by the improving prospects for the U.S. and EU, which remain key export markets for China,” Biswas said. “This upturn in world growth will also drive a rebound in world trade, with growth in world containerized trade forecast to rebound from a sluggish 2.1 percent growth rate in 2013 to 4.7 percent growth in 2014.”
Although PwC forecasts China’s GDP growth will slow to 7.5 percent this year from 7.7 percent in 2013, other analysts are more bullish. IHS, for example, expects growth of 8.1 percent in 2014 as exports improve and consumer demand remains robust.
In Japan, the “Abenomics” policies installed by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will propel the country to 1.6 percent GDP growth this year, up from a projected 1.4 percent in 2013, according to PwC, while South Korea’s GDP is expected to expand 2.8 percent in 2014, up from 2.7 percent last year.
In terms of export growth, New York-based corporate bank HSBC forecasts major gains this year by China (8 percent growth, compared with 6 percent in 2013), Hong Kong (8 percent in 2014 vs. 6 percent last year), Japan (5.3 percent vs. 1.8 percent), South Korea (7.5 percent vs. 4.5 percent), Singapore (5.6 percent vs. 2.9 percent), Thailand (7.8 percent vs. 4.4 percent), Indonesia (5.1 percent vs. 4.5 percent) and Malaysia (5.6 percent vs. a 0.6 percent drop last year).
Asia-wide, HSBC expects exports to grow an impressive 7 percent in 2014 and accelerate to 8.5 percent in 2015, a huge jump from the estimated 4.7 percent growth achieved in 2013 and just 3.1 percent in 2012.
China’s solid economic expansion and rising demand for imports also will boost intra-Asia trade in 2014. “China will continue to provide a fast-growing export market for the rest of the Asia-Pacific,” Biswas said. “Association of Southeast Asian Nations exports to China have been growing at an average annual rate of over 20 percent per year over the last decade, and strong ASEAN-China bilateral trade will continue to be an important export growth market for both ASEAN countries and for China.”
Exports across ASEAN will play a greater role as a growth engine in 2014 than they have in previous years, he said, with domestic demand likely to moderate. Myanmar and Vietnam also will benefit from recent economic reforms.
Ample reasons remain for caution on Asia’s prospects for 2014, however. The eurozone still needs further reform of its financial sector, while the U.S. and Japan are struggling with high government debt and related fiscal risks that could hurt GDP growth and trade.
Uncertainty also clouds the outlook in India, Indonesia and Thailand, all of which face national elections this year. China, meanwhile, is at odds with a number of its neighbors over territorial sovereignty, especially at sea.
Many Asian countries also need to adjust their economies. “A new round of structural reforms is a must for many emerging market economies, including investment in infrastructure, to reignite potential growth,” the International Monetary Fund wrote in its latest World Economic Outlook paper. “China needs to rebalance growth away from investment toward consumption to make way for more balanced and sustainable domestic and global growth.”
According to Biswas, the main risk to an upturn in U.S. export demand comes from the impact of Federal Reserve tapering during 2014 if it results in an unexpected slowdown in the pace of U.S. private sector recovery.
“In the EU, a key risk to the fragile economic recovery is that it could still falter due to the impact of ongoing fiscal austerity and weak consumer demand,” he added.
Intra-Asian trade, which has become an increasingly important driver for export-led Asian economies, also will be at risk if Chinese growth slows because of the impact of efforts to curb domestic credit expansion, particularly in the shadow banking sector, Biswas said. “This could significantly dampen intra-Asian trade growth, given China’s role as a key export market for most other Asian economies,” he said. “The territorial dispute between China and Japan also remains a key risk to bilateral Sino-Japanese trade flows if tensions escalate further.”
In 2014, you may need more than one weatherman to know which way the winds blow.
Contact Mike King at email@example.com.