Factory activity contracted sharply across Asia as virus shock deepens

Steep falls in export powerhouses Japan and South Korea overshadowed a modest improvement in China

A worker uses an electric cart to haul a load of ride-sharing bicycles along a street in Beijing, Thursday, May 16, 2019. Figures released on Wednesday showed China's factory output and consumer spending weakened in April as a tariff war with Washington intensified, adding to pressure on Beijing to shore up shaky economic growth. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein)

Factory activity contracted sharply across most of Asia in March as the coronavirus pandemic halted economic activity across the globe, and sharp falls in export powerhouses Japan and South Korea overshadowed a modest improvement in China.

Manufacturing gauges also tumbled in Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines, purchasing managers' index surveys showed on Wednesday, underscoring the widening damage brought by the pandemic that has infected more than 859,000 people globally, upended supply chains and led to city lockdowns worldwide.

China's factory activity improved slightly in March after falling a month earlier, a private business survey showed, but growth was marginal, highlighting the intense pressure facing businesses as domestic and export demand slumps.

Factories in China gradually restarted operations after lengthy shutdowns and a fall in virus cases has allowed the country to start relaxing travel restrictions.

However, activity in South Korea shrank at its fastest pace in 11 years as many of its trading partners imposed dramatic measures to contain the virus.

“If you look at the Korean numbers, they are fairly bad ... They are likely to get worse still because Korea will be dependent on parts from Europe and the United States,” said Rob Carnell, Asia-Pacific chief economist at ING in Singapore.

“[Policymakers] have to accept the inevitable – that there is a massive global pandemic here, there is an outbreak in almost every country globally and certainly in our region, which is getting to levels that if they don’t take very dramatic action, it’s going to get much worse,” he said.

Japan's factory activity contracted at its fastest pace in about a decade in March, adding to views that the world's third-largest economy is likely already in recession.

A separate "tankan" survey by the Bank of Japan showed on Wednesday that business sentiment fell to a seven-year low in the three months to March, as the outbreak hit sectors from hotels to car makers.

“The tankan clearly shows a sharp deterioration in business sentiment and confirms the economy is already in recession,” said Yasunari Ueno, chief market economist at Mizuho Securities.

China's Caixin/Markit Manufacturing PMI rose to 50.1 last month, from February's record low of 40.3, and just a notch above 50, the mark that separates growth from contraction.

South Korea's IHS Markit PMI plunged to 44.2, its lowest since January 2009 when the economy was left reeling by the global financial crisis. The index was 48.7 in February.

Japan's PMI fell to a seasonally adjusted 44.8, down from a reading of 47.8 in February, its lowest since April 2009. The ruling coalition has called on the government to announce a stimulus package worth at least 60 trillion yen (Dh1.96tn/$553 billion), with 20tn yen in direct spending.

Policymakers across the globe, including in Asia, have announced massive monetary and fiscal stimulus measures to try to mitigate the economic fallout from the pandemic, keep cash-starved businesses afloat and save jobs.

But many measures have been stop-gap measures to deal with the immediate damage to corporate funding and shore up financial systems.

The International Monetary Fund said the pandemic was already driving the global economy into recession, and called on countries to respond with "very massive" spending to avoid bankruptcies and emerging market debt defaults.