TOKYO, 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.
Sentiment among Asian automakers improved considerably during the first quarter, with all 11 respondents saying they were neutral on the outlook. In the last quarter, one-third of the six respondents were negative. Most respondents cited global economic uncertainty as the biggest business risk, although new orders and sales increased at seven companies.
Builders, which were the most bullish last quarter, turned neutral to match autos as the least optimistic sector. All four companies polled said they were neutral, ending two consecutive quarters of positive marks. Two cited global economic uncertainty as the top risk. New orders and sales either stayed the same or rose at the four companies polled.
The reading among financial firms moved sideways, with 10 out of 14 respondents neutral and four positive - a similar ratio to last quarter's survey. An overwhelming 12 firms saw global economic uncertainty as the biggest risk, even as new orders and sales rose at just over half of the companies. Taiwan's Yuanta Financial Holdings Co Ltd was among the companies surveyed.
Food companies were more optimistic in the latest survey, with the reading improving to 60 from 50. Six of the 10 respondents were neutral and three were positive, while one turned in a rare negative outlook. Seven companies reported an increase in new orders and sales. Japan's Asahi Group Holdings and Kirin Holdings Co Ltd were among the participants in the survey.
Sentiment at drugmakers stayed about the same after turning more bullish in the previous survey. Four respondents were positive, outnumbering the three others who were neutral. Rising costs and global economic uncertainty were among the primary concerns. Japan's Takeda Pharmaceutical Co Ltd was among those surveyed.
Property developers' sentiment reading stayed at 75, with two each responding neutral and positive readings. New orders and sales increased at three of the four companies surveyed. Ayala Land Inc of the Philippines was among those surveyed.
With eight of 21 respondents positive and 10 neutral, the index improved to 62 from 50. Companies' primary concerns were varied, but global economic uncertainty was the most common risk cited. Two said employment levels had fallen, while new orders and sales either stayed the same or rose at all 21 companies.
Half of the eight respondents were neutral and the other half positive, taking the reading up 17 points in the latest quarter. Four of the eight cited rising costs as their biggest risk, while sales rose at just over half of the companies polled. Japan's Fast Retailing Co Ltd was among those surveyed.
Shipping companies' sentiment was neutral to positive, resulting in an unchanged reading of 67. Global economic uncertainty was the sector's main source of concern. International Container Terminal Services Inc of the Philippines was among the companies surveyed.
Most technology companies surveyed were neutral, and the rest - 30 percent - were optimistic, keeping the sentiment index little changed at 65. More than half of the 20 companies surveyed said new orders and sales increased and six reported higher employment levels. Global economic uncertainty was cited as a top risk by about half the respondents. Japan's Canon Inc and Toshiba Corp were among the participants in the survey.
** Companies sampled for the survey may change from one quarter to the next. (Compiled by Chang-Ran Kim; Editing by Miral Fahmy)