Davos, Wall Street cast uneasy eye on global economy

While the official theme of this year's World Economic Forum is how technology will affect the future, much of the talk is focused on how the suddenly shaky global economy is affecting the present.

Nariman Behravesh, chief economist with IHS, notes that rising concerns about China's slowing growth and the impact of slumping oil prices is dominating informal discussions at the event, held every year in Davos, Switzerland. Such fears have sent U.S. financial markets tumbling to their worst-ever start in January, although stocks bounced back Thursday after European Central Bank chief Mario Draghi hinted that the lender could act to stimulate growth in the eurozone.

After tumbling on Wednesday, the Dow Jones industrial average gained 116 points, or 0.7 percent, to close at 15,883, while the S&P 500 added 10 points, or 0.5 percent, to 1,869. The Nasdaq Composite index was largely flat. Since late-December stocks are down roughly 10 percent, erasing more than $2 trillion in market wealth.

The downdraft in stocks around the world this year reflects something else: A difference of opinion between those investors, corporate executives and other market watchers who believe the global economy is likely to shrug off its problems and grow modestly this year, and those who think it is headed for a fall.

Bill McDermott, CEO of German software giant SAP, is in the former camp. Speaking from Davos, he expressed optimism that China will get past the latest bout of market volatility and engineer a "soft" landing for its economy, while acknowledging that volatility could persist in the short-term.

"But it will not be a long-term sustainable negative reaction, in my judgment, because what I see on the ground -- and I just got back from China -- is amazing prosperity and opportunity," he told CBS News.

Ray Dalio, chief investment officer of hedge fund Bridgewater Associates, thinks the turbulence in China could last two or three years, as the People's Republic restructures its economy from one based on investment and construction to one that depends largely on consumer spending. In the meantime, China's economy remains fundamentally healthy, he said during a panel discussion Thursday in Davos.

"It was not an accident that the Chinese economy is slowing down -- it was part of a strategy," Jacob Frenkel, chairman of JPMorgan Chase International, told CBS News in between sessions at the gathering. "The Chinese government, as you know, has decided to switch its growth strategy from relying on exports and the production of manufacturing to relying on services and domestic demand. This means that growth is going to be slower."

Behravesh is somewhat less bullish, saying that China's gross domestic product -- the total value of goods and services produced in a year -- is closer to an annual rate of 4 percent or 5 percent, rather than the 6.8 percent the Chinese government reported this week. Officials in Beijing have also heightened concerns about the country's fragile capital markets and growth prospects in recent months through their clumsy interventions to support stock prices and weaken China's currency, according to IHS.

But Behravesh agrees that the risk that China's economic doldrums will turn into a full-blown global crisis is low, noting that U.S. and European Union exports to the People's Republic are small as a share of their overall GDP.

"Assuming that China is able to stabilize its financial markets, then global markets will become calmer," Behravesh said in note.

For now, however, markets as a whole are taking a dimmer view. Given the turmoil overseas and with signs that the U.S. economy slowed sharply in the final three months of 2015, a growing number of investors and analysts have dialed back expectations that the Federal Reserve would raise interest rates four times this year.

Adam Slater, lead economist for Oxford Economics, thinks that a sustained selloff in stocks could seriously harm global growth. The slide in global stock prices, which have fallen 1o percent this month, could push world GDP growth in 2016 toward 2 percent, which would undershoot last year's rate of 2.5 percent.

David Levy, head of the Jerome Levy Forecasting Center, is even more pessimistic. He predicts that the slowdown in China and other emerging markets will trigger a global recession in the first half of 2016. Among the economic signals pointing to a downturn are declining U.S. corporate profits, weakening global trade and the falling price of oil, gold and industrial metals, according to Levy.

Some experts also fear that big U.S. banks could see a spike in loan delinquencies and defaults as a result of the plunge in oil prices, which have fallen roughly 75 percent over the last 18 months. In announcing their latest earnings last week, Citigroup (C) and Wells Fargo (WFC) each noted an increase in non-performing loans to energy companies.

--With reporting from Lulu Chiang, Lauren Hoenemeyer and Gilad Thaler

  • Alain Sherter On Twitter»

    Alain Sherter covers business and economic affairs for CBSNews.com.