Recession? Debate Is Really About New World Economy

Recession chatter is reaching a crescendo The media is full of it. Wall street economists are predicting it. And companies are planning for it. But, the U.S. is not really in a recession yet, technically speaking. (or at least we don't know if we are.)

That would be two quarters of negative growth. So far, we haven't seen a negative quarter and the third quarter's growth was close to five percent. Wall Street sees a 1.2 percent or so growth rate in the fourth quarter, but of course its the first half growth levels that some economists see turning down.

For now, the economy is still at a crossroads. While many of those who see a recession say it's already here. Some of those who don't believe that say it's the pessimists who could bring it on with their dire forecasts, hurting consumer and business confidence.

The real debate focuses on whether this is a new world economy, one where a weak U.S. does not necessarily pull the global economy into a recession. The question is whether the emerging markets, responsible for about half the world's growth, can move into the role of economic engine.

Check out the cover of Newsweek:"The Road to Recession" and "Will declining U.S. economy drag down the world." If there's one debate that resonates out of the last week's meeting of global business leaders in Davos, Switzerland, it was that one. We saw plenty of comment from CEOs who were cautious on the U.S. but said their overseas business was strong for now.

So did CEOs there expect a recession? "The truth is people really don't know," said Cambridge Energy Research Chairman Dan Yergin, who attended Davos. "It is a bit of a hot house atmosphere where every five minutes we're taking the temperature of what's going on with the global economy. Small talk at noisy receptions was all about global GDP."

"The speeches were balanced between prudence and caution and outright pessimism," said Yergin, who is also CNBC's global energy analyst.

The upbeat crowd at Davos though were those from emerging markets or from commodities exporting economies, or both. He said the debate was centered around the idea that the U.S. economy could be "decoupling" from other economies and the question of whether they are strong enough to stand up on their own. But he says from discussions he heard, it seems the Europeans have now "decoupled" from the decoupling debate and believe their economy will be impacted by a U.S. slowdown.

"If the emerging markets continue to be engines of global growth even if the U.S. goes into a downturn, it will tell you we are in a new chapter of global economic history," said Yergin.

Pepsi CEO Indra Nooyi participated in a session at the World Economic Forum this past weekend with Yergin. Earlier in the week, she told Maria Bartiromo in an interview from Davos that the emerging markets' economies have certainly changed the way the world works.

"We're in a period of incredible globalization, where many economies outside of the United States have also grown and emerged to be powers in their own way. So let's not panic," she said in the interview. "Let's wait it out. See what happens. We've had the Fed rate cut in. We will see some gyrations in the market. Let's just manage companies for the long-term and see if the engines of China and India will carry the world without going into a recession for a while," said said.

Of course, that argument does not help companies that do not have strong multinational exposure, or make their living from serving multinationals.

Brian Wesbury, chief economist with First Trust Advisors, was on "The Call" today and he is one that does not see a recession. He points out that some of the data, like industrial production, durable goods and retail sales, was worse at the beginning of last year than they are now. "The housing market is only 4.5 percent of GDP. To put that into comparison, exports are 12 percent of GDP. Yes, housing is weak, but exports are booming. They are up 14 percent in the last year."

So what's the feeling from these emerging markets that so much hope has been pinned on. "The Chinese message at Davos was "We are rooting for you. We don't want you to slow down," said Yergin.

Questions? Comments?