World Economic Forum at Davos 2011: Still Standing

It's all change at this year's World Economic Forum in Davos, as economic and political leaders face a future in which developed nations struggle to limp out of recession while emerging markets flourish. But those shifting fortunes come at a cost

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Say this for the young century: we live in interesting times. Not quite 2 1⁄2 years ago, the world economy tipped into the most severe downturn since the Great Depression in the 1930s. World trade slowed sharply. Unemployment lines grew longer, especially in the old industrial economies. Financial institutions that had seemed as solid as granite disappeared as if they were no more substantial than a bunch of flowers in the hands of an old-style magician.

Given that the scale of the downturn was so epochal, it should not be surprising that the nature of the recovery would likewise be the stuff of history. And it has been. As they make their way to Davos for the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF) by helicopter, bus, car or train (which is the right way to do it), the members of the global economic and political elite will find themselves coming to terms with something they have never known before.

The new reality can be expressed like this. For more than 200 years, since the Industrial Revolution, the world has seen two economies. One has dominated technological innovation and trade and amassed great wealth. The second — much of it politically under the thumb of the first — has remained poor and technologically dependent. This divide remains stubbornly real. The rich world — the U.S., Canada, Western Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and the four original Asian dragons — accounts for only 16% of total world population but nearly 70% of world output.

But change is upon us. The developed world of the haves is struggling to restart growth and preserve welfare states, while the world of the once have-nots has surged out of the downturn. Big emerging economies like China and India have discovered new sources of domestic demand. Parts of Africa are attracting real interest from investors. All told, the strength of the developing world has supported the global economy. The World Bank estimates that economic growth in low- and middle-income countries contributed almost half of world growth (46%) in 2010.

A Sigh of Relief
In the long term, this is nothing but good news. As billions of poor people become more prosperous, they will be able to afford the comforts their counterparts in the rich world have long considered the normal appurtenances of life. But before we celebrate a new economic order, deep divisions both between and within nations have to be overcome. Otherwise, the world could yet tip back into a beggar-thy-neighbor populism that will end up beggaring everyone. We are not out of the woods yet.

First, though, let’s assess how things stand. The world is in a much better state than many expected it would be a year ago. The double-dip recession some economists feared never materialized. In the U.S., which seemed to stall in the summer, there are early signs that consumers are spending and banks are lending again, while the stock market is at its highest point in 21⁄2 years. Though Europe is wheezing under cascading sovereign-debt crises, it has so far avoided the worst-case scenarios — a collapse of the euro, a debt crisis that spills from small economies such as Greece and Ireland to much bigger ones like Italy and Spain, and bitter social unrest in those nations that are having to massage wages down while cutting public budgets.

Amid all the encouraging news (or at least the absence of terrible tidings), Goldman Sachs economists have turned practically giddy, recently upgrading their 2011 global- and U.S.-growth forecasts (to 4.8% and 3.4%, respectively). While 2010 was the “Year of Doubt,” 2011, they proclaim, will be the “Year of Recovery.” U.S. economist Nouriel Roubini, the Cassandra of the crisis, reckons that if all goes right and nothing terrible goes wrong, the global economy might grow nearly 4% this year.

It must be said: not everyone agrees. Jim Walker, an economist at research firm Asianomics in Hong Kong, predicts that 2011 will be a “year of reckoning.” The rebound in the U.S., Walker says, is a mirage created by excessive stimulus. He expects the U.S. to slip into the double dip it dodged in 2010. Even the less bearish worry that the global economy is far from healed. Most economists expect the rebound to flatten out in 2011, with growth likely to be lower than in 2010. In mid-January, the World Bank estimated global GDP growth will slow to 3.3% in 2011 from 3.9% in 2010. Stephen Roach, an economist at Yale University, believes that the world economy is still digging itself out of the debt and distortions built up during the last boom. “It’s a really slow postcrisis workout,” Roach says. “I’m not prepared to give the global economy the green light.”

The caution is understandable. In the developed world, unemployment remains sickeningly high (9.4% in the U.S., 10.1% in the euro zone). The private-sector debt crisis of 2008-09 has morphed into a public-sector debt crisis in 2010-11, a result of the debt and deficits amassed in the process of stimulating economies and bailing out banks during the downturn.

(See pictures of the stock market crash of 1929.)

Politicians are being forced to scale back spending even though the recovery remains weak. In Britain, deep cuts in the budget mandated by Prime Minister David Cameron will most likely cost hundreds of thousands of public-sector jobs. In the U.S., the miserable condition of state and local governments’ budgets is likewise leading to a job-killing retrenchment. Europe’s imposition of austerity has led to heightened political conflict. Ballooning debts and feeble growth prospects for the advanced economies are reordering the investor’s perception of risk. Noting that the U.S. “has no plan in place to stabilize and ultimately reverse the upward debt trajectory,” Moody’s in mid-January warned that the country’s AAA credit rating could come under pressure if debt continues to mount; a few days later, Moody’s upgraded Indonesia’s rating.

The emerging economies face risks of their own. The most alarming is a sharp rise in inflation — a result of strong domestic growth, stimulus policies, and commodity prices pumped up globally by returning demand, fears of (or actual) supply constraints and the loose-money policies of the West. In early January, Fatih Birol, chief economist at the International Energy Agency, warned that oil prices, now over $90 a barrel, “are entering a dangerous zone” that could threaten the global recovery. The U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization said its food-price index reached an all-time high in December, surpassing even the nosebleed levels of 2008’s surge. Such spiking prices for the basics people need to survive are hard enough to swallow in the developed world. “Just at the point you start to see a recovery coming, you get hit by commodity prices that hit people’s incomes,” says Stephen King, chief economist at HSBC. In emerging markets, the fallout can be much more severe. High food prices have already contributed to the collapse of the government in Tunisia.

Fearing the consequences, policymakers throughout the developing world have switched priorities from holding up growth to fighting inflation. In mid-January, China raised the reserve-requirement ratio — which forces banks to park more money at home for every loan they make — to a record high in an attempt to curtail credit and quell inflation, which rose at the fastest pace in two years in November. In India, raging food prices, galloping ahead by nearly 17% from a year earlier, have become such a sensitive issue that when Pakistan temporarily cut off some exports of onions to the country, it sparked a minor diplomatic row. The same measures used to bust inflation, however, will also dampen growth. The World Bank predicts slowdowns for roaring China (from 10% growth in 2010 to 8.7% in 2011) and India (9.5% to 8.4%).

Was It for This?
Such numbers, of course, are beyond the dreams of workers and consumers in developed economies. Millions from Michigan to Madrid want to work but can’t — leading them to put countless small dreams for themselves and their families on hold — so the risk that the shift of economic power will breed populist resentment rises. Many in the developed world are only now becoming aware that the globe’s economic future will be determined not just in London or New York City but in Beijing and New Delhi too. “The problem that Western economies have is that they haven’t realized the full effect of the rise of the emerging world,” says HSBC’s King.

One suspects they soon will. The summit between U.S. President Barack Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao in Washington took place in a highly charged atmosphere. China is tired of being lectured to by those who seem unable to manage their own economies particularly well. U.S. politicians, with an ear to their constituents, are lobbying for protective tariffs if China does not allow its currency to appreciate. U.S. businesses, which have in the past been supportive of free trade and engagement with China, are beginning to sing with different voices. Large technology and industrial companies grumble that China’s pursuit of “indigenous innovation” through regulatory and procurement policies is freezing them out of potentially lucrative markets.

See a brief history of the World Economic Forum.

See pictures of the global financial crisis.