Watch  Simon Treacy as he discusses the possible effects of the U.S. credit ceiling debate and the European markets mean for real estate investing.

In a day that started with news of European leaders agreeing to a Greek-debt plan, and which would end with the Dow Industrial Index having surged 340 points, some of the industry’s top capital-market experts warned ULI 2011 Fall Meeting attendees to remain wary, especially of leverage.

“There’s a lot of suspense out there,” said Simon Treacy, group chief executive, MGPA, a private equity real estate advisory company focused on Europe and Asia. “Even with Greek debt taking a 50 percent haircut, I don’t even think we’re at first base yet.”

Michael G. McCaffery, chief executive officer, Makena Capital Management, a Menlo Park, California, investment-management firm serving institutional clients, said, “Europe is in for a long period of very muted growth, working their way out of a lot of leverage and bank problems.”

Italy is already in recession, said Kelvin Davis, senior partner, TPG Capital, a global private equity firm headquartered in Fort Worth. France and even Germany could see recession as early as the fourth quarter, he said.

Asian economies will slow, but from a high rate of growth. Treacy said China’s growth could slow to a rate that’s in the high-8 to 9 percent range. “Overall I think Asian countries will come through this quite well,” he said.

Although panelists do not foresee a double-dip recession in the United States, they don’t anticipate robust growth, either. Ron Sturzenegger, managing director, Legacy Asset Servicing Executive, Bank of America-Merrill Lynch, said he expects the U.S. would be “muddling through” for another five years, with about 2 percent growth rates and unemployment ranging between 8 and 9 percent.

Panelists said there are opportunities in real estate, but warned that the sector is drawing a lot of attention from investors frustrated with stock market volatility and negligible returns on debt instruments. “People are looking for a lower-risk, more calculated sort of investment,” said Roy Hilton March, chief executive officer of Eastdil Secured, a real estate investment banking company headquartered in New York.

But McCaffery warned against following the herd. “You don’t want to invest where the capital is going and at cap rates so low there won’t be any significant return if we get any inflation.”

Clearing out the foreclosed-home inventory would help with the other problems facing the U.S. economy, including consumer spending and employment, panelists said. “We have gone from an ownership to a rental society, and there aren’t enough multifamily rental units to absorb that,” March said. He called for developing a better way to acquire distressed-mortgage properties and turn them into rental housing. “Ultimately that can create a healing process,” he said.

Davis echoed that, calling for getting private investors in to take ownership of foreclosed inventory from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and to rent the homes back to occupants, perhaps with potential for them to eventually buy back the home. Sturzenegger noted that that is the work he is doing for Bank of America now. “What is hard to get is people who can operate that business,” Sturzenegger said. “Day-to-day management of that portfolio is complicated.” And it’s subject to approval from federal regulators, he noted.

Sturzenegger also called for a faster foreclosure process to help clear out inventory of distressed properties, especially if they already are vacant. “Forty percent of all delinquent housing in the U.S. is not owner-occupied,” he said. “It has already been vacated.”