China leads slump in Asia factories on trade war, fading tech boom

Workers produce lightbulbs that will be exported to the US at a factory in Wannian in China's central Jiangxi province.
Workers produce lightbulbs that will be exported to the US at a factory in Wannian in China's central Jiangxi province.PHOTO: AFP

HONG KONG (BLOOMBERG) - Factory conditions across some of Asia's most export-oriented economies slumped in December, hit by the US-China trade war and a fading technology boom.

In China, the Caixin Media and IHS Markit PMI fell to 49.7 from 50.2, its lowest reading since May 2017. reports showed on Wednesday (Jan 2). That confirms a trend seen in the official PMI on Monday, which showed a drop to 49.4 in December, the weakest since early 2016. A reading below 50 signals contraction.

Asian stocks fell and US futures and oil pared gains.

"The PMIs are signaling trouble ahead," said Chua Hak Bin, an economist at Maybank Kim Eng Research in Singapore. "There have been some healthy trade numbers in some countries, but this is probably short-lived."

Taiwan's Nikkei and IHS Markit manufacturing purchasing managers' index fell to 47.7 in December from 48.4 in November, down from 56.6 a year earlier. That's partly due to a fall in demand for machinery and electronics goods, along with information and communications equipment, amid slowing orders for new smartphones and the simmering trade war.

Malaysia's PMI fell to 46.8 from 48.2, its lowest reading since the series began. New orders were at their weakest since May. South Korea's PMI remained in contractionary territory for the second consecutive month even as the overall reading nudged higher. The manufacturing nation - a bellwether for global trade - saw exports fall in December.

There were signs of softness across the rest of the region too. Vietnam's PMI fell to 53.8, while the Philippines PMI fell to 53.2. In export-reliant Singapore, economic growth slowed to an annualized 1.6 per cent in the final quarter of 2018, according to data released on Wednesday. Indonesia bucked the trend, with its PMI rising to 51.2.

The readings show how the ongoing trade war between the US and China is hurting demand across Asia's manufacturing hubs. While US President Donald Trump has signaled that negotiations with China are making progress, economists remain wary that the talks could stall ahead of a March 1 deadline.

Bloomberg's Global Trade Checkup is softening amid a fading rush to front-load export orders ahead of threatened tariffs, with economists warning 2019 will be the year the global economy feels the strain of trade tensions.

The picture in Asia matches an emerging trend in the US, where five Federal Reserve indexes of regional manufacturing all slumped in December, the first time they've fallen in unison since May 2016.

Worsening data could prompt Trump and Xi to agree on trade, Xia Le, Hong Kong-based chief Asia economist at Banco Bilbao Vizcaya Argentaria SA. told Bloomberg Television.

"In China, they are facing a slowdown and according to recent data this slowdown is worse than expected," he said.