As the financial and economic elite gather in Davos for the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum, much of the optimism is centered on the U.S. in particular and world equity markets in general. Investors have soured on gold, traditionally a safe haven in times of uncertainty, while growing more wary about China. And for the first time since the survey began, Asian poll participants aren't the ones most willing to take risk; Europeans are.
The U.S. economy has picked up steam since the last global poll in November, with industrial production and consumer spending rising and jobless claims falling. Gross domestic product probably expanded at 3.5 percent annual pace in the fourth quarter, up from 2.6 percent in the previous three months, according to the median estimate of 67 economists surveyed by Bloomberg News.
Wall Street has benefited from the improved economic news, with the Standard & Poor's 500 Index rising for seven of the last eight weeks.
The U.S. came out on top when survey participants were asked to name the best countries to invest their money over the next year. More than 35 percent (37%) cited the U.S., followed by China, with 26 percent, and Brazil, with 23 percent. The European Union was seen by the most respondents as the market offering the worst returns (40%).
The U.S. trailed China, Brazil and India as one of the most attractive places to invest in the last survey in November. India, which is suffering from rising inflation, took a knock in the latest poll, with 18 percent of investors picking it as offering the best opportunities over the next year, down from 29 percent in November.
More than half of those polled (53%) describe the U.S. economy as improving, up from just a third (32%) who said that in November. Almost two-thirds (64%) predict the S&P 500 index will rise over the next six months. Less than 20 percent (17%) see it falling.
Overall, 49 percent of respondents said the global economy is improving. That's a new high for the poll and up from 44 percent in November. More than three-quarters said inflation was a greater threat than deflation over the next 12 months.
Equities get high marks in the poll. Some two in five investors (41%) pick stocks as the asset class that will offer the best returns over the next year. More than 55 percent (57%) say they will increase their exposure to shares over the next six months.
Bonds will offer the worst returns over the next year, according to 45 percent of those surveyed. Some three in five investors (63%) forecast that the yield on the U.S. Treasury's 10-year note, which moves inversely to its price, will rise over the next six months.
Gold has also lost luster, with almost twice as many investors (33% vs. 17%) saying they will reduce their exposure to the metal over the next six months as increase it. More than half (52%) say the gold market is a bubble.
Some of the enthusiasm about investing in China has also been tempered. One in five investors (20%) say the world's most populous country will offer the worst returns over the next year. That's up from about one in 10 (11%) who felt that way in November.
Asian investors in general are less optimistic than they have been. Forty-three percent say they're taking more risks, down from 47 percent who said that in November. About half of European investors (49%) say they're taking more chances with their money, while 40 percent of U.S. respondents say the same.
Chinese President Hu Jintao and German Chancellor Angela Merkel got the highest marks from poll respondents for pursuing policies conducive to investment. Sixty percent voiced optimism about each of the leader's programs. More than half (63%) felt that way about U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron.
President Barack Obama's standing increased in the poll: investors were roughly evenly split between optimism and pessimism over his policies. In November, more than 60 percent were down on Obama. A majority of investors -- 54 percent -- don't believe the U.S. has done enough to prevent another financial crisis.
Investors remain downbeat on French President Nicolas Sarkozy, with more than three in five (62%) voicing pessimism about his policies.