By Ben Hirschler
DAVOS, Switzerland (Reuters) - Business leaders in Davos have plenty to worry about, from the euro zone to global geopolitical upheavals, but at heart their problem is simple: how to find new revenue in a low-growth world.
Half a decade on from the financial crisis, investors want to see earnings driven by more than just cost cutting. Their focus now is on a return to sales growth, which presents the world's largest corporations with a $5 trillion challenge.
That is the amount of extra revenue the 1,200 top global companies need to find each year simply to meet analysts' expectations, according to consulting firm Accenture.
"The trouble is that stock markets' expectations of the ability of companies to grow far exceeds the underlying macroeconomic growth rates," said Mark Spelman, Accenture's global head of strategy.
"So companies need to get beyond just thinking about emerging markets and rising middle classes and start to look at those segments where you are seeing significant consumer change, because there is a lot of latent growth in those segments."
Increasingly, companies are seeking specific pockets of opportunity for sales growth. They remain cautious about major new investments, however, with confidence among managers in the near-term outlook for their businesses still weak.
The annual PricewaterhouseCoopers survey of more than 1,300 chief executives worldwide found only 36 percent were "very confident" of their firm's prospects for revenue growth in the next 12 months, down from 40 percent a year ago.
MACRO VS MICRO MISMATCH
The mismatch between the sputtering global market for goods and services predicted by macroeconomists and the lofty numbers forecast by analysts following individual companies is striking.
In all regions, analysts' forecasts for company revenue growth are well above prevailing views on underlying economies.
While the World Bank last week cut its 2013 global growth forecast to 2.4 percent - and just 1.3 percent in advanced economies - analysts see company revenues expanding by 7.8 percent in Asia outside Japan, 3.8 percent in the United States and 2.4 in the euro zone, according Thomson Reuters data.
And consensus forecasts call for 2014 sales to pick up even further, especially in the U.S., where a recovery, it is hoped, could be spurred by rapid growth in shale oil and gas supplies.
Companies in the middle of the current hoped-for recovery are wary, as reflected in results from two of Europe's biggest manufacturers on Wednesday.
Longer term, CEOs are more optimistic, but there are bound to be questions over delivery, given that only around a tenth of companies in the S&P Global 1200 index have seen revenue growth outstrip economic growth in each of the past three years.
In the fight to buck the slow-growth trend, nimbleness is key as companies move away from broad-based bets to more targeted strategies that they hope will win market share.
"Uncertainty is itself becoming more of a certainty," said Jonas Prising, who heads Manpower's
Mergers and acquisitions would be one way for corporations to buy growth - but CEOs remain reluctant to undertake large-scale deals, despite cheap credit and relatively low valuations.
In fact, the focus of CEOs on M&A is at the lowest level in six years, according to the executives surveyed by PwC.
"M&A activity is going to be very focused, very targeted and certainly nowhere near the levels that we saw over the past several years," said PwC International Chairman Dennis Nally.
The calamitous nature of some bold deals from the recent past, such as those of miner Rio Tinto
An important focus for companies now is on smarter ways to serve sections of their existing markets, while placing selective bets on new openings.
For many, this involves embracing digital technology to keep pace with changes in how consumers buy goods and services - from shifting more resources to online sales to greater use of new tools to analyze behavior.
But new opportunities come in many guises. Luxury goods companies, for example, are aggressively growing their retail networks, especially flagship stores, particularly in growth markets, while companies in many sectors are chasing new service contracts that can lock in profits for years.
Geography, too, remains a vital lever for managers to pull as they chase new sales. For Spanish companies struggling with a dire home market, Latin America has become a prime target because of their language advantage, helping the likes of telecoms giant Telefonica
Others are betting that the U.S. market will indeed surge back this year, including German carmaker BMW
With $5 trillion to find, the world's business leaders can afford to leave no stone unturned.
(Editing by Will Waterman)