If there was a prize for which US president had had the more exclusive and expensive Japanese dining experience, Barack Obama would beat George W Bush hands down.
The incumbent US leader and his Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe dined in one of Japan’s – and thus the world’s – most exclusive sushi restaurants on Wednesday night – Sukiyabashi Jiro, where only 10 people can squeeze along the counter and there is one choice on the menu – a $300 course of exquisite sushi.
I had hoped that my 25th trip to Davos would be marked by the award of a silver fondu set, at the very least. No such luck. The only prize is to be asked yet again to work on “reshaping the world”, this year’s theme.
That degree of repeat offending suggests either an astonishing inability to learn from experience, or some residual belief that the exercise is indeed worthwhile. Whether the state of the world has been improved over the 44 years the World Economic Forum has existed is a moot point: it depends on the hand you have been dealt. Chinese princelings, whether on the strength at JP Morgan or not, would no doubt tick the box; Syrian refugees, whose plight is firmly on this year’s agenda, would beg to differ.
There are many party games to play at Davos. Some work better than others. The fashion now, perhaps driven by the success of TED conferences, is for strictly time-limited interventions, as short as possible. One economic historian was asked to summarise the development of the global monetary system over the last 150 years, and forecast the future of the dollar, the renminbi and the euro out to 2030 – all in three minutes. Actually he made a more than decent stab at it, but others, who may well have something interesting to say, have barely cleared their throats before the bar comes down.
One innovation in the last few years which does work well is the so-called Ideaslab. I approached this with trepidation when asked to lead one a couple of years ago. Again, each presentation must be three minutes, no more, no less, and is accompanied by a slideshow of related images – not charts and graphs – which the speaker cannot control in any way. It’s a Swiss version of the BBC radio panel game “Just a Minute”: no hesitation, deviation or repetition allowed.
Not a milestone to rejoice in. Japan’s debt has tipped into the “quadrillion” zone for the first time. That is, as of the end of June, central government debt, looked like this: Y1,008,628,100,000,000, or $10.4tn.
It surely could not be a clearer message to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe that shilly-shallying over fiscal consolidation is no longer an option? Second-quarter economic output figures due on Monday are key to Abe’s decision about whether to raise consumption tax from 5 per cent to 10 per cent by 2015. Back in June in a speech in London, he pinned any decision to raise the tax – one he must make by October – on the strength of the economy in the second quarter.
Austerity appears to be an increasingly dirty word in Europe. The past week alone has seen European Commission President José Manuel Barroso, Bill Gross of Pimco and Italy’s new prime minister Enrico Letta calling for an easing of austerity.
Spain’s surpassing of the 6m unemployed mark on Thursday added fuel to the debate. But even in Germany, the austerity police of the eurozone, cracks are beginning to show ahead of the elections with the emergence of an anti-euro party.
a) Are there any austerians left? Yes. Here are some of them.
- UK: Chancellor George Osborne hit back at criticism over his apparent excessive austerity by claiming there is no other alternative. And after a tough week when he was criticised by the IMF over the excessive pace of his austerity programme, this week has brought better fortunes for his stance as figures showed a lower deficit and the economy expanded 0.3 per cent in the first quarter.
- Germany: Chancellor Angela Merkel’s view as articulated this week couldn’t be clearer: “I call it balancing the budget. Everyone else is using this term austerity. That makes it sound like something truly evil.” Germany is the only eurozone country with a 2012 budget surplus.
- US: The situation here is different because of sequestration, which triggered automatic spending cuts and tax rises. And the White House faces a July deadline to raise the borrowing limit or default on its debt.
- Latvia: The tiny Baltic state is emerging from a state of uber austerity – part of its bid to join the euro later this year – and it could end up being seen as a poster child for successful deficit cutting implementation, with real growth of more than 5 per cent in 2011 and 2012, despite the broader recession in Europe.
- Spain: The push by Europe’s fourth-largest economy to cut spending and raise taxes has led to record unemployment topping 6m for the first time in its recent history. The government of Mariano Rajoy announced economic reforms and structural measures on Friday.
- Italy: The technocrat government of Mario Monti has been steadfast in carrying out fiscal consolidation. All eyes will be on Mr Letta, who has already said: “Europe’s policy of austerity is no longer sufficient”.
If commodities exporters were pinning hopes on an acceleration in Chinese growth, Monday was not a good start to the week. The disappointing gross domestic product statistics for the first quarter give the likes of Australia, Brazil and Indonesia plenty to be worried about.
As one investor put it: “For the global economy this data is bad news. Commodity exporters are screwed (especially those needing exports to China as key component). I would be very worried about places like Brazil, Indonesia, Australia and the like. The current level of GDP growth in China is OK with China but not OK for the currencies above.”
Two days is apparently not enough for all the talking that needs to be done, so here we are entering Davos Day Three. But as our morning reading shows, there are some worries that delegates are not ready yet to discuss.
Gillian Tett in her column this week highlights cyber attacks. She compares the “whispers in the corridors” with that of 2007, when there was a similar fear of articulating the credit bubble.
Here’s more from the WEF (you can find the FT stories on our in-depth page and many blog posts, including our live coverage on our World blog):
David Cameron, UK prime minister, had more to say on the country’s relationship with the EU and sought common ground with German chancellor Angela Merkel among others.
The FT’s Martin Wolf takes Cameron to task when he blogs that the prime minister may have set the UK on the path to an exit although he really wants to remain within the EU.
IMF chief Christine Lagarde at Davos (AFP)
As our colleagues in the mountains don boots, bobble hats and gloves for day two of Davos, here’s some reading material from the comfort of the FT’s London office to help you limber up for Thursday’s talk-fest.
David Cameron’s speech yesterday on Britain’s future in Europe provided much fodder for journalists – with reaction from leaders across the continent and further. Le Monde’s Marc Roche takes the theme of tact to interpret his speech, while in Der Spiegel Christoph Scheuermann argues that Cameron “missed an opportunity on Wednesday to haul Britain back to the centre of Europe“. The New York Times’ Andrew Higgins writes that “while the acute phase of the financial crisis has passed, the challenge to Europe’s mission and even its membership has not”. Cameron will be taking to a podium again this morning, this time in Davos.
The Davos conference centre (AFP).
The World Economic Forum’s 43rd annual shindig is kicking off in Davos this morning and to get you started ahead of our live blog, here’s some reading to accompany your morning coffee. You’ll find all the FT pieces on our WEF page. And here’s the WEF home page. Enjoy.
From our A-List blog of guest writers Howard Davies, who will be blogging for from the conference, in an amusing take on why the forum is like Scientology.
Peter Vanham guides us through what is being touted as one of the main themes at the bash - how to capitalise on the strength of emerging markets over developed ones – on our Beyondbrics blog.
On Alphaville, David Keohane, gives us the Davos D-List, and introduces the lovely Mdm D. Deville as the blog’s own special correspondent. Do follow her on @DavosDeville.