Four Keys to Decoding the World Economic Forum

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Anja Niedringhaus / AP

A participant of the World Economic Forum at the 43rd Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Jan. 23, 2013.

As we speak, business leaders and heads of state are gathering in Davos, Switzerland, for their annual dose of brainstorming and cocktail partying. Bloggers have been placing bets on whether the U.S. or hobbled Europe will get more attention, and whether Wall Street darlings like JPMorgan Chase’s Jamie Dimon and Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman Sachs will have it easier this year than last. For readers following the event (and journalists covering it), Davos can be an overwhelming cacophony of competing themes and ideas. So here are four things that may help make sense of the weeklong media flurry ahead:

You Aren’t Invited (and Neither Am I)

In case you missed this lovely Davos decoder by Nick Paumgarten in the New Yorker last year, it’s a sharp assessment of what Davos is really like from the inside — or outside, depending on your status as a Davos attendee. Writes Paumgarten:

Davos is an onion, a layer cake, a Russian doll. ‘Never feel that you’re out of the loop, because the loop is you,’ Platon, the photographer, assured me, by which he meant that Davos is whatever experience you are having there. But could he be trusted? It was only his second Davos. Yossi Vardi, an Israeli tech investor and an 18-year Davos veteran, said, ‘What you see here, in the Congress Center, is just 20% of the action.’

Over the next few days, there will be much chatter about the official remarks of headliners like Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti, Christine Lagarde of the International Monetary Fund and economic prophesying by the likes of Stephen Schwarzman of the Blackstone Group. But don’t expect all the earth-shattering ideas to come out of scheduled events (although I do expect some interesting fodder from Wednesday’s TIME panel featuring, among others, Walmart’s Mike Duke and Harvard’s Clayton Christensen). As the Financial Time’s Howard Davies points out, many earthshakers at Davos don’t really want to be there and do their best to say very little. “George Soros, who is here as usual, told me he hates it, but always attends,” notes Davies.

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Much of the red meat of this gathering happens off-line in IGWELs, which is Davos jargon for “Informal Gathering of World Economic Leaders.” IGWELs are the secret gatherings between top policymakers and business leaders that take place under the radar at the Congress Center while everyone else (including me) scrambles to the next panel discussion.

Things Aren’t Looking Good

The U.S. is bound to muddle through its fiscal crises, markets and corporate earnings are upbeat, and emerging economies like China have yet to combust. But the World Economic Forum’s own data tells a different story. Its survey of 1,000 economic and business seers showed more negative sentiment about the global economy’s prospects than existed 12 months ago. Expect bearish mainstays like Nouriel Roubini to have plenty of room to indulge in doomsday scenarios. If you’re in the mood for something upbeat, look no further than Canada.

The Nerds in the Corner Are Fine Company

The most incisive panels, I’m told, are not the ones featuring the usual global-markets gurus and economic bold-faced names. They’re the artists, academics and scientists who’ve joined the party as gadflies, adding a touch of color and humanity to the event with their insightful (if uncontroversial) ideas. Check out Davos panelist Gabriela Montero, the Venezuelan pianist who infuses classical music with improvisation and political overtones. Or the latest from French panelist Serge Haroche, who won the 2012 Nobel Prize for Physics with David Wineland for work that could revolutionize desktop computing and communication.

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Don’t Believe Everything You Hear

Andrew Ross Sorkin aptly points out that the predictions that come out of Davos don’t look as hot in hindsight. So don’t bet the farm on what you hear from the world’s biggest thinkers this week. Then again, you may not be able to. So far, the consensus from people like Rich Lesser, the Boston Consulting Group’s new chief executive, and Dennis Snower, president of the Kiel Institute for the World Economy, is that paralyzing uncertainty is the only sure thing in sight.