From the tech backlash to Rouhani being the real deal: Lionel Barber’s 5 Davos takeaways

I arrived in VIP-full Davos with one prediction in mind: 2014 will be the year the world returns to normality or at least the semblance of normality with the tapered exit from quantitative easing.

After three days at high altitude, the prediction is intact and I have five other takeaways.

1) Even as a broad recovery based on housing and manufacturing takes hold in the US, there are worries about Europe. The existential threat to the euro is over but Merkel’s Germany has shuffled left, demographics are poor, anti-immigration movements are on the rise, including in the UK, and growth appears terminally tepid. Worries about a China slowdown though are overblown.

2) The tech backlash is coming: it was astonishing how much fretting there was about technology as the jobs destroyer not the great liberator. Was it all down to a powerful Economist front cover last week or other troubling numbers about tech killing jobs in the professional services (the banks!) and manufacturing in emerging markets?

3) The banks are turning into utilities (with still high salaries) but are making a big effort to clean up their image and rebut Lord Turner’s accusation they are engaged in “socially useless” activities. I attended an impressive Barclays breakfast this morning where Chief Executive Antony Jenkins outlined his charter for lending to the great unbanked. The initiative is three years old but Barclays is now pushing other powerful NGOs like the Clinton Global Initiative and private companies (Accenture, Allianz and Visa) to come aboard and help in places like Africa. It just needs to work and be more than good deeds.

4) The Democrats and Republicans are like two heavyweight boxers who have punched themselves senseless and are now propping themselves up in the ring (this is called “coming together” ?) The loose Tea Party talk about debt default is off the agenda – Wall Street and the men and women with the money said no more in 2013 – and therefore we won’t have a long and scary stand off this year. But the White House thinks the Republicans may do something dangerous and eye-catching just for Tea Party show before striking a budget deal.

5) President Hassan Rouhani of Iran is for real and he wants a deal to end his country’s isolation. I saw him close-up this week for the second time in two months. And while the session was off the record, he was refreshingly open in private about environmental damage and youth unemployment. He won’t give up Iran’s nuclear energy option (and he does not quite convince why oil- and gas-rich Iran needs nuclear for its energy mix). But the economic stresses are real and his country needs foreign investment. And while Iran can grow five per cent plus this year, Iran’s huge potential will only be realised if sanctions are lifted.

Final thought: my bet is President Barack Obama is strong enough to block a new round of congressional sanctions, but a comprehensive deal with Iran will be difficult to do inside 12 months.