SINGAPORE, March 19 (Reuters) - Asia's top companies were slightly more upbeat in the first quarter of 2014 compared to the fourth quarter of 2013, but concerns over the global economy and rising costs continued to weigh on sentiment, the latest ThomsonReuters/INSEAD Asia Business Sentiment Survey showed.
The ThomsonReuters/INSEAD Asia Business Sentiment Index rose slightly to 64 in the first quarter compared to 62 in the fourth quarter of 2013.
A reading above 50 indicates an overall positive outlook.
Corporate confidence in Australia slumped from a three-year high in the previous quarter to its lowest level in a year, snapping a six-quarter winning streak.
Of the seven respondents, five were neutral and two were positive about business sentiment. Four reported deterioration in employment levels, while all respondents in the previous quarter reported either higher or unchanged employment levels.
Three respondents cited global economic uncertainty as a major risk, and one considered rising costs its top concern.
Only one respondent reported increased new orders and the rest said the orders remained the same, a departure from the previous quarter's results which showed growth in orders for half of the respondents.
Corporate sentiment in China dropped significantly from the previous quarter to 50, on the border between being positive and negative. All eight respondents said they were neutral on their outlook.
Rising costs and uncertainty in global economies ranked as the top two concerns for the seven Chinese companies that responded to the question on business risks.
Six out of eight respondents said their orders and employment levels remained the same, while two reported increases in these levels.
Corporate sentiment in India dropped sharply on the quarter from a one-year-high of 82 a quarter earlier, as 30 percent of the 20 respondents expressed optimism, sliding from nearly 65 percent in the last quarterly survey.
While no one was negative about their outlook, 14 out of 20 respondents said they were neutral.
Eleven respondents cited the murky outlook for the global economy as the top risk to their business, while five considered rising costs the biggest threat and some were worried about regulatory uncertainties.
Despite the less upbeat outlook, 18 out of 20 respondents reported increased new orders and the other two said order levels remained the same. Nearly half of the 20 respondents reported higher employment levels and 11 said levels were the same.
Corporate sentiment in Japan edged up from the previous quarter. The uncertain global economy remained the paramount concern, while rising costs, volatile foreign exchange market and impact of a hike in consumption tax worried companies as well.
Fourteen of 17 respondents were neutral on business sentiment, while the rest were positive.
Of the 17 respondents, 14 reported employment levels remained the same while the rest reported improvements.
One respondent reported a fall in new orders, while five reported increases. The rest saw the same level of new orders.
SOUTH KOREA: HIGHEST IN NEARLY 3 YRS (INDEX AT 67 VS 50 IN Q4)
Business sentiment rose to 67, the highest since it hit 88 in the second quarter of 2011. Five of eight respondents said global economic uncertainty was their biggest worry, while two cited rising costs.
Two-thirds of the respondents said new orders had risen, while the rest reported the same level of new orders, an improvement from the previous quarter.
Corporate sentiment in Taiwan weakened after a blip of optimism in the last quarter, as all six respondents said they were neither positive nor negative about business outlook.
Four out of six said they worried about the uncertain economic picture the most, while one was concerned about rising costs. All respondents said employment levels were unchanged.
SOUTHEAST ASIA: MOSTLY UPBEAT (THAILAND AT 41 VS 40; PHILIPPINES AT 100 VS 58; SINGAPORE AT 67 VS 50; MALAYSIA UNCHANGED AT 75; INDONESIA AT 50)
Southeast Asian businesses were mostly positive except for Thailand, which remained in negative territory for the second quarter as political turmoil continues to engulf the country. Four of 11 respondents were negative about the business outlook, a deterioration from last quarter's results that found one-fifth of the respondents were negative.
Four out of 11 respondents in Thailand reported increased new orders and only one reported a decrease in new order levels.
Companies in the Philippines were the most optimistic of the bunch, with all 12 respondents reporting positive sentiment that pushed the sentiment index to 100, even as the majority of them were concerned about the implication of the uncertain global economy. Most companies reported higher new orders and employment levels.
Singapore's reading rose to 67 from 50 a quarter earlier, as eight of nine respondents reported an increase in new orders. Three-quarters of the companies were worried about the global economic uncertainty.
Indonesia's sole respondent reported neutral sentiment and concerns about rising costs. Malaysia's reading remained the same as the previous quarter at 75.
** Companies sampled for the survey may change from one quarter to the next. (Compiled by Rujun Shen; Editing by Miral Fahmy)