The world is burdened by $200 trillion in debt that won't get paid back and will ultimately destroy emerging market economies and global growth, according to ASX chief executive Elmer Funke Kupper.
Mr Funke Kupper's comments come as a new survey shows Australian CEOs are less optimistic about growth in the world economy, as well as their own company's ability to make money in the coming year.PwC's 19th Annual Global CEO Survey, launched at the World Economic Forum in Davos on Wednesday, showed that just 31 percent of Australian CEOs are expecting an increase in global economic growth this year, down from 38 per cent in 2015.
PwC CEO survey: ASX
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PwC CEO survey: ASX
As part of PwC's 19th Annual Global CEO Survey, Elmer Kupper, offers his thoughts on how we're going, and what lies ahead.
The survey is based on interviews with more than 1400 CEOs of large companies in over 83 countries, including 49 Australians.
Just over one third of Australian CEOs are 'very confident' they will see revenue growth in the next year, well down from 43 per cent last year.
"The threat that we see, first and foremost, is the economy," Mr Funke Kupper said in response to questions posed in the PwC survey.
Debt will lead to crisis
The Australian economy was going through a transition, and while it was "so far so good", it was not risk free.
"I'm quite concerned about the overall state of the global economy and particularly the level of debt that we have," said Mr Funke Kupper, who is also a director of the Business Council of Australia.
"I think the world is burdened with about 200 trillion dollars' worth of debt which is an amount of money that simply is not going to be paid back."
This was happening in an environment where there were "record levels of quantitative easing and record low interest rates".
"But one day that's going to unwind, and when it's going to unwind, I think we'll see some forces at work that could really damage some parts of the world, particularly emerging markets economies."
Australia a powerhouse?
Wesfarmers chief Richard Goyder was more upbeat saying Australia could be "part of the economic powerhouse in the decades ahead".
I think we'll see some forces at work that could really damage some parts of the world, particularly emerging markets economiesASX chief executive Elmer Funke Kupper
"Let's be real, the Australian economy's growing and has been growing for nearly 25 years now. That's not a bad record," he said.
"I think there are some risks but it's still an economy I'm happy to be doing business in".
Australia was a "fantastic place to live", had an abundance of natural resources and highly educated workforce, Mr Goyder said.
"We're now on the doorstep of the growth economies of the world: China, India, South-East Asia," he said.
But the survey found that 78 per cent of all CEOs surveyed see more threats today than they did three years ago.
CEOs cut costs, hire less
The greatest concern was over cyber threats (82 per cent), technological change (73 per cent) and the availability of skills (65 per cent).
CEOs are responding to such threats through cost-reduction initiatives (73 per cent), ahead of entering into a new joint-venture or alliance (53 per cent). This has seen a big shift in hiring intentions, with 41 per cent of CEOs saying they will reduce headcount in 2016, compared with just 12 per cent in 2015.
The survey also found that 82 per cent of CEOs believe business success in the 21st century will be redefined by more than financial profit.
Mr Goyder said the economy was "more dynamic, more volatile now than it ever has been".
This was not just through economic factors but because of "terrorism, climate change and a whole lot of geopolitical factors".
Make or break year?
Mirvac chief executive Susan Lloyd-Hurwitz also pointed to the "threats of terror, mass migration of human beings in Africa and Europe, technological change, political change" as creating greater volatility.
PwC chief executive Luke Sayers said it would be a "make or break year" for Australia.
He called for action in areas including tax reform, infrastructure development, and investment in science, technology, engineering and maths.
The survey found 61 per cent of Australian CEOs ranked a "clearly understood, stable and effective tax system" as the top priority for government, but only 18 per cent see the government as effective in delivering on this.Mr Goyder defended Wesfarmers record on paying tax, and urged the Turnbull government to cut the company tax rate, which is currently at 30 per cent for large business.
"Corporate tax rates in Australia are too high and as a consequence, they don't incentivise investment," he said.
"At the end of the day, we all look at what the after-tax proceeds are or cash flows are from an investment. If the tax rate's higher then those cash flows are lower."
Tax less, motivate
Mr Funke Kupper said companies should be transparent about the taxes they pay. He also called for tax changes that "motivate investment".
"It [the tax system] should allow for infrastructure investment, it should allow for a basic safety net for the most vulnerable in society, and of course it should be simple and easy to administer," he said.
"Unfortunately those are all objectives that are tied together so there is no simple solution. But I think it needs quite radical simplification and reform to meet all of those objectives."
Airtasker CEO Tim Fung said sharing economy services such as Uber would have to pay GST to ensure the tax system remained fair for everyone.
"It's all about creating an even playing field for all of the players in the market," he said.
Almost four in 10 of the Australian CEOs surveyed said they are making changes to their diversity and inclusion strategy in order to attract and retain talent.
This is compared to just 22 per cent of their global counterparts.
NewsLifeMedia chief executive Nicole Sheffield said the biggest issue for her personally was childcare reform.
"The reality is we lose too many men and women between the ages of 30 and 40 because actually the cost of childcare is prohibitive," she said.