Davos WEF
Davos WEF

US overtakes China as CEOs' top target for growth

Since the global financial crash of 2008, companies have been rushing to gain exposure to China's 1.35 billion potential consumers. However, that tide seems to have now turned with the U.S. ranking as the most important market for growth over the next 12 months, according to a new report.

The survey — released by PwC Tuesday at the World Economic Forum in Davos — said that global CEOs now place the U.S. ahead of China in the global market stakes for the first time since PWC asked the question five years ago. Of the CEOs polled, 38 percent said the U.S. was among their top-three overseas growth markets, compared with 34 percent for China, 19 percent for Germany, 11 percent for the U.K. and 10 percent for Brazil.

"While some mature markets like the U.S. appear to be rebounding, others like the euro zone continue to struggle. And while some emerging economies continue to expand rapidly, others are slowing. Finding the right strategic balance to sustain growth in this changing marketplace remains a challenge," Dennis M. Nally, the chairman of PwC International, said in statement accompanying the report.

Read More Is the era of 7% growth over for China?

The annual survey, the 18th time it has been released, compiles 1,322 online responses from global CEOs in 77 countries during the last quarter of 2014. CEOs from Dell, Johnson & Johnson, RBS, Volvo, BHP Billiton and RBC were just some of the survey's notable contributors.

U.S. stock markets showed solid gains last year adding to the seemingly never-ending bull market for equities that is now in its sixth year. For many, the third-quarter figure for gross domestic product (GDP) - which came in it an annualized 5.0 percent – confirmed that the U.S. economy is looking up and is back on track. This was the quickest pace the U.S. economy grew in 11 years.

In contrast, the Chinese central bank is carefully trying to manage a fall from double-digit growth for the world's second largest economy. The country's leadership is stepping up regulation, curbing an overheated credit market and switching an export-focused economy into a consumer-driven one. China's gross domestic product release on Tuesday showed the economy grew 7.3 percent in the fourth quarter from the year-ago period, bringing growth in the full year to 7.4 percent – the weakest performance since 1990.

Read More China economy grows at slowest pace in 24 years

Despite a bullish outlook for the U.S., CEOs are generally cautious on the outlook for the 2015, adding to a rather lukewarm mood at the World Economic Forum in Davos. The new year has seen Islamist terrorism on the streets of France, major currency volatility in Switzerland, ultra-low bond yields, a continued fall in oil prices and tensions in eastern Ukraine that are far from over.

The national flags of the U.S. and China.
Getty Images

Fewer CEOs than last year think that global economic growth will improve over the next 12 months, according to the survey: 37 percent of those surveyed thought global economic growth will improve in 2015, down from 44 percent last year while 17 percent believed global economic growth will decline, more than twice as many as a year ago.

"This year, there's a dip. Without question, it really points to the concerns out there...CEOs are really saying that they want certainty," Nally told CNBC at Davos.

In its World Economic Outlook Update published on Tuesday, the International Monetary Fund projected the world economy would expand by 3.5 percent this year and 3.7 percent next year, picking up from 3.3 percent in 2014 but lower than its October estimate of 3.8 percent for this year and 4 percent for the next.

"The world is facing significant challenges: economically, politically and socially. CEOs overall remain cautious in their near-term outlook for the worldwide economy, as well as for growth prospects for their own companies," PwC's Nally said.

"CEO confidence is down notably in oil-producing nations around the world as a result of plummeting crude oil prices. Russia CEOs, for example, were the most confident in last year's survey, but are the least confident this year. Confidence also slipped among CEOs in the Middle East, Venezuela, and Nigeria."