SEOUL-- South Korean firms' business outlook for December remained below a key benchmark for the 19th consecutive month, a think tank said Tuesday, with 2017 marking the first time that the reading has remained negative for an entire calendar year since the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis.

According to the data compiled by Korea Economic Research Institute (KERI), business sentiment for December, as measured by the business survey index (BSI), remained sluggish at 96.5. A reading below 100 means pessimists outnumber optimists in terms of business outlook.

The monthly index is based on a survey of the Federation of Korean Industries' 600 members, of which 427 companies responded.

KERI said business sentiment remained stagnant throughout 2017 due to trade disputes with major countries such as the United States and China coupled with the rising tension with North Korea.

Other economic uncertainties, such as potential hikes in U.S. key interest rates, also emerged as burdens for South Korean companies, it said.

This year also marks the sixth consecutive year that the figure has hovered below the benchmark.

KERI said it was significant that the figure was under 100 even in May, when sentiment normally rises on higher domestic consumption. May is referred to as the family month due to the holidays Children's Day and Parents' Day.

The researcher added that the latest findings indicate that the pessimistic sentiment among the local business community has become chronic, highlighting that the government should actively eliminate regulations and reform the labor market.

Source: Yonhap News Agency