The timing and pace at which the US Federal Reserve unwinds its money-printing programme was identified as the single largest threat to global economic growth in 2014 in a vote from the floor of the Asian Financial Forum in Hong Kong.
The annual global gathering of a record 2,300 business leaders and senior government officials saw 31.7 percent of delegates voting electronically from the conference floor nominating so-called "tapering" of the US quantitative easing programme as the biggest global economic risk this year.
However, a clear majority of 52.1 percent saw potential for problems in emerging economies to be the biggest threat, following an extended period in which emerging market growth has underpinned the global economy while developed economies tackled the fallout of the 2008 global financial crisis.
That total was divided between 29.1 percent who put fear of a "hard landing" for the Chinese economy at the top of their risk list, and 23 percent who nominated the more nebulous potential for "structural issues in emerging markets" to be the biggest risk this year.
Whereas recent Asian growth had been the result of economic "tailwinds", including quantitative easing by the US, "things are changing," Asian Development Bank president Takehiko Nakao told the two-day conference, which opened today.
"Tailwinds are becoming headwinds," he said, although he remained optimistic that the Eurozone would continue to recover, Chinese economic reforms would underpin its long term outlook, and that Fed tapering would be well-managed.
Global economic growth of 6 percent was estimated for last year, with 6.2 percent forecast for this year.
"Despite moderation, growth remains robust by anyone's standards," Nakao said. While global financial markets had gyrated earlier in 2013 at signs of early Fed tapering, moves before Christmas had seen less volatility.
"I think governments are more prepared now," he said.
A comparatively low 16.2 percent of those who voted in the conference floor poll saw a relapse of Eurozone countries into economic crisis as the most serious threat, although in a later vote, only 54.8 percent thought Europe was now "on the right track."
While Asian economies were expected to continue "powering global growth" and exporting capital to other markets in the year ahead, only 12.8 percent expected the Asian region to "exemplify financial and fiscal prudence."
While there was consensus among speakers in the first sessions at the AFF that the days of double-digit annual growth in China are now a thing of the past, there was optimism that economic reforms foreshadowed late last year by newly appointed Chinese president Xi Xinping would see the powerhouse economy of Asia continue to grow sustainably over the longer term.
The AFF comes a fortnight before the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, although the chair of the Hong Kong Trade and Development Council, Jack So Chak Kwong, suggested in opening remarks that the Hong Kong forum was the more relevant gathering.
"Although Davos is good for skiing, this is where things are happening," he said.
The secretary for financial services and the Treasury for Hong Hong, K C Chan, said the world economy was "very sensitive to US recovery."
Asian economies were "still contingent, to some extent, by the progress of developed economies."
The president of the Eurogroup and Finance Minister for the Netherlands, Jeroen Dijsselbloem, gave an upbeat assessment for Eurozone economies in the year ahead, as austerity programmes began to bear fruit, although European economic growth is forecast at just 1.7 percent in the year ahead, from 1 percent last year.
Another vote from the conference floor found 39.9 percent of attendees are optimistic about the world economy in 2014 and 49.3 percent took a "neutral" view, while only 10.8 percent are pessimistic about the outlook this year.
Disclosure: Pattrick Smellie is in Hong Kong as a guest of the Hong Kong Trade and Development Council
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