ASIAN bosses are generally an optimistic lot but they have become far less cheerful about business prospects than their counterparts elsewhere, according to a new survey.

The confidence levels of chief executives in China, India, Singapore, South Korea and Thailand fell to a marked low in the fourth quarter of last year, led largely by weak expectations on sales and hiring prospects.

The survey is used to compile the Young Presidents' Organisation (YPO) Confidence Index.

It slipped from 60.9 points in the third quarter to 60.7 in the three months to Dec 31 - its lowest since July 2009 - and below the global reading of 61.2.

'It's the first time the Asian index (has gone) below the global index,' said Mr Terry O'Connor, Courts Asia's regional chief executive and a member of the YPO Singapore Chapter Executive Committee.

'There was an expectation that Asian CEOs would be firing on all cylinders, but they could be more cautious given domestic policy issues and cooling measures.'

While the sentiment index for Asia remained at a 'fairly lofty' level, it is significantly lower than in earlier quarters when the index was consistently in the high 60s, said Mr O'Connor.

Sentiment among CEOs in the United States was higher than the global reading at 62.2 for the first time since July 2009 when the index was launched.

This is in line with the positive data coming out from the world's largest economy in recent weeks.

CEOs in Canada were the most upbeat of the lot with a reading of 64.4.

The survey of 2,157 CEOs, including 216 from Asia, was conducted in the first two weeks of last month.

A reading above 50 indicates a positive outlook.

While Asian CEOs were pessimistic about sales and hiring prospects, their expectations on fixed investment were upbeat, albeit lower than in early 2011. This indicates that bosses in the region continue to have the world's most ambitious capital spending plans.

From mid-2009 through to the third quarter of 2010, Asian confidence was about 10 points higher than the global index but that gap has narrowed since to the current low.

While Asian CEOs said business conditions have deteriorated from six months ago, 38 per cent expect the situation to improve while 23 per cent forecast it to worsen six months down the road.