Curious Capitalist

Davos Wisdom, 2013: Five Lessons from the Global Forum

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David Cameron, U.K. prime minister, speaks during a session on day two of the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland, Jan. 24, 2013.

One of the best descriptions of Davos I ever heard originated with my friend David Rothkopf, the CEO of Foreign Policy, whose book “Superclass” is perhaps the definitive chronicle of Davos man. “Davos,” he says, “is a factory in which the conventional wisdom is manufactured.” If that’s true, it’s worth knowing what was churned out of the factory this week as the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting wraps up today. Here’s my top 5 CW list:

(MOREDavos Crib Sheet: Top Global Risks of 2013)

  • We are entering very risky territory in terms of how much central bankers are doing, in lieu of real political action, to try and boost economic growth. Nobody, with the exception of a few worried Germans, was talking about this last year. Now, everyone is fretting about how the Fed, the ECB (until recently), the Bank of Japan and even the Chinese authorities have distorted asset prices of everything from stocks to bonds to real estate, quite possibly laying the foundation for the next crisis. For more on how all this works, check out my Curious Capitalist column from September 24th, 2012 entitled “The S & P Soars, the Economy Snores.”  Yes, I feel validated, as I’ve been writing this story for some time, but on the other hand, it’s not exactly the sort of thing you want to be right about.
  • Currency wars have become a real possibility. Just as central bankers are keeping interest rates low and asset prices high, so does every country wants to keep its currency down in order to make exports more competitive. Again, I’ve been predicting this for some time; check out my 2011 column on the topic here. The thing is that currency wars create a race to the bottom that can derail the global economy. Hedge fund titan George Soros speculated this week in Davos that we’ll see Germany, the growth engine of Europe, start to slow down in 2013 as a weaker yen props up Japanese exports at the expense of German ones. That could throw the Eurozone, which has begun to stabilize a bit, back into crisis.

(MORE: The TIME at Davos Debate: The Rewards of Mastering Risk)

  • Five years on from the sub-prime crisis, the financial system is still just as risky and unregulated as it ever was (one of the highlights of this week has been watching JP Morgan head Jamie Dimon fend off more attacks from hedge funder Paul Singer on this score). Banks still aren’t lending. What’s new is that in lieu of banks actually reconnecting themselves to the real economy, fresh players are starting to move into lending; emerging market sovereign wealth funds are loaning money for infrastructure projects worldwide, and peer-to-peer lenders are now loaning hundreds of millions to small businesses in the UK (new rules coming soon in the US may allow them to take off here too). The message to banks: if you don’t lend, others will, ultimately disrupting your business model.
  • Big rich multinational companies are increasingly at odds with their home countries over things like taxes, job creation, and social welfare. Nations are finally pressuring rich firms to pick up some of the costs of globalization, rather than just the benefits. I mentioned this as a possible future trend in my Davos wrap column last year and this year it’s really happening. UK prime minister David Cameron gave a very powerful speech on this front, saying that as the UK takes over the G8, he would name and shame multinationals that use creative accounting to avoid taxes (he had a funny “wake up and smell the coffee” reference to Starbucks, which was recently put under fire for paying only a few million in taxes on billions of UK revenue in the last 14 years, and has now coughed up double what they owe for the last year as a result). There is also increasing talk about industrial policy, and favoring domestic firms, which is increasingly seen as smart self-interest rather than protectionism. That will have big trade and labor ramifications.

(MORE: Is the Scene At Davos Getting Old?)

  • Jobs are a problem, but politicians still don’t have the answers. Despite the fact that hundreds of millions of people are still unemployed or under-employed following the 2008 crisis, jobs tend to be the after-thought at the end of many political speeches here in Davos.  Companies are actually talking more constructively about jobs and the skills gap than politicians are, and some of the big blue chips are actually beginning to get into the education game themselves, partnering with community colleges or setting up schools in the developing world. Given how beleaguered public budgets are, I think that corporate involvement in education is something we’re going to see more and more of, possibly in the form of the kind of partnerships I wrote about here.

One final point that’s worth mentioning is that there’s a big gap between Davos man and the rest of us. Every year here on the Magic Mountain, the PR firm Edelman unveils their multinational survey of public trust in various institutions (like government, business, media, non-profits) called the “Trust Barometer.” One of the most interesting findings this year is that there’s a big gap in trust between the elites and the common man – the former has a lot more faith in public institutions of all kinds that Mr. Main Street does. That’s perhaps the biggest conventional wisdom takeaway of all, and one that the world leaders gathered here should keep very much in mind.

MORE: Davos: Why U.S. Companies Fail to Innovate