Davos sessions

It’s a bit unclear at Davos when a session is on the record and when it’s off the record. In years gone by (I am told) part of the magic of Davos was the opportunity to hear the thoughts of global leaders off the record. But in the digital age of bloggers, Twitter and YouTube, the dividing line is less clear. And I think that is a good thing. Davos is much more transparent now.

The place is awash with bloggers and “tweeters”. Folk like the legendary Michael Arrington and Robert Scoble, Loic Le Meur of France and Richard Muirhead of Tideway in the UK broadcast continuous updates to their Twitter followers running in to the tens of thousands around the world.

Davos was early in proclaiming that the 21st century would be the Asian Century. China’s miraculous development story is central to this vision—a transformation that would inevitably push the pendulum of global power from West to East. This tectonic shift was very much on the minds of most who attended my final Davos session of the year “China, India and Japan: Asia’s Big 3.”

Not so fast, I argued—even though I have made my own career bet on just such a possibility. Yet the Asian century is hardly as preordained as the Davos consensus seems to believe. The main reason, in my view, is that the region continues to rely far too much on exports and external demand. Developing Asia’s export share hit a record high of 47 per cent last year—up 10 full percentage points from levels prevailing in the late 1990s. That hardly speaks of a true economic power that has become increasingly capable of standing on its own.

One of the biggest rounds of applause came when John Neill, chief executive of Unipart, the logistics company, said that if he had sold toxic products he would have been committing a criminal offence and would have expected to be in prison.

There was a frisson in the room. The atmosphere was such that a lynch mob could have been formed for the nearest banker. That got me thinking about the conduct of some of the bankers which has ranged from gross misjudgment to selfish actions in relation to bonuses and golden parachutes which really are totally unacceptable.

It is becoming something of a cliche here to say the mood at this year’s Davos is so depressing that it is feeding the recession, rather than building a consensus on how we escape from our predicament. CEOs who arrived a little anxious about their prospects are now very worried. Those who arrived worried are now deeply depressed. Those who arrived depressed may not go home at all.

I began to wonder if this Spenglerian gloom was a financial sector phenomenon. Two invitations to talk to the automotive sector, and the Tourism and Travel group, gave me an opportunity to test that hypothesis. Sadly, it quickly folded.

I took part in a luncheon discussion on the ‘post-carbon’ economy. This very term, ‘post-carbon’, is an obviously optimistic, future-forward theme in a time when oil and coal consumption is surging. Finding consensus here towards far-reaching solutions feels like a distant hope. In fact, our looming ecological crisis mirrors our present economic crisis in disconcerting ways.

Both these crises, for instance, happen to be triggered by market failure. The absence of any accounting when it came to environmental costs, and our failure to price natural resources into the economy have brought about the climate crisis. The financial collapse represents the same case of ‘disastrous optimism’ – our overlooking of ‘negative externalities’ in financial reporting, balance sheets and risk assessment. And in both these cases, we have tried to privatise profits and socialise losses.

There has always been a certain tension between the World Economic Forum’s slogan – “Dedicated to improving the state of the world” – and the fact that many of the delegates are in Davos to network and go to parties. That is particularly awkward in a year when many of the people here have arguably done quite a lot to mess up the state of the world – by, for example, flogging toxic debt.

Davos has reacted by toning down the parties this year. The closing gala, which usually features dancing and loud music, has been re-branded as a “cultural event” – which sounds really dismal. The tasting of fine wines is not taking place. The investment banks are keeping a low profile.

The Davos annual gathering has an uncanny knack of being able to both predict and understand future waves of investment and growth. The wisdom of this particular crowd has been adept at capturing the zeitgeist. Two years back for instance, at Davos 2007, the reigning superstars were the wizards of private equity. These men and women, who Tom Wolfe had called the ‘Masters of the Universe’, were welcomed everywhere with applause and appreciation, and they fascinated audiences with their war stories of multi-billion dollar acquisitions. There was widespread speculation surrounding when they would break the US$ 100bn mark. There was no public company in the world that seemed beyond them.

Sessions with titles like “Reconfiguring the Global Financial Regulatory Architecture” are not always the most difficult to get into at Davos. This year is different. As the second G20 summit approaches there is a sense that decisions may be made which could significantly alter the environment within which financial firms work. So the topic seizes the attention here, especially of those who worry they may be brought into the net, like hedge funds and private equity firms. The private sector is not, however, defending the status quo. There is a widespread recognition that the system, especially in the US, but also in the EU, has not done what it says on the tin. And I detect an emerging consensus around three points.

Far too crowded. Probably 500 people over the top. Last year 2000 was heavy, 2600 is too many. Some can’t attend sessions even having tried to book online from home. Participant numbers should be reduced.

Security is also very tight, aggravated by the crush. There are heavy lines and queuing, especially early in the morning. On the other hand, this is not surprising with 40 country leaders present, many with large convoys.

My good friend, Stephen Roach, Asia chairman of Morgan Stanley, disappointed me at the economic outlook session this morning. I expected him to be even more bearish than usual.It says something about the change in global mood that his forecast – a global recession this year followed by 2.5 per cent annual growth over the subsequent three years – looks almost bullish. The reality might be even worse, alas.

I chided him and his fellow panellists for their apparent complacency about what I called a “proto-depression”. What did I mean by this?

Davos blog 2009

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