Deciphering Davos

Lesley Curwen

After years of covering the annual World Economic Forum in the picturesque Swiss resort, the BBC’s Lesley Curwen offers Global her take on events from the sidelines of last year’s meeting, and asks whether the focus of ‘Resilient Dynamism’ will be anything more than a catchy title for the 2013 think-fest.

Davos, the snowy January haven of the business elite, is either a) a gold-plated ego-fest for the world’s top bigwigs, or b) an unrivalled forum for frank discussion of the failings of global capitalism and possible solutions. Tick a) or b) according to your preference. Or tick both.

Ever since the credit crisis began five years ago, some of the wealthiest and smartest people in the world have flocked to the Swiss mountain resort (though some bankers stayed away, to avoid the limelight) to talk about why it happened and how to prevent the next one. The gathering itself has been going for more than 40 years. This year’s snappy title is ‘Resilient Dynamism’. According to the World Economic Forum (WEF) website, this means leaders from both public and private sectors must be willing to take risks to spur much-needed growth for the world economy, ‘dynamic’ growth in the words of the WEF. These leaders also need to be resilient, if the risk-taking goes horribly wrong.

There are a thousand ways to interpret this. Perhaps it suggests governments should rein back on austerity and focus on growth and jobs. Maybe it means businesses should stop sitting on cash and start investing and taking risks again.

How much can this kind of talking shop make businesses or even economies more dynamic? If networking is a measure of dynamism, Davos qualifies as a roaring success. Everyone does it and it is often shameless. I once watched a prominent economist carelessly hang around the BBC studio in Davos for several hours on the pretence of having free coffee and somewhere to sit. In fact, he was greeting each of the luminaries as they emerged from the studio, with fake surprise that they happened to be there at the same time.

I shouldn’t cast stones. As a journalist and broadcaster, in the space of half an hour I could meet and interview Tony Blair, the boss of Brazilian oil giant Petrobras and the founder of Wikipedia. There are drawbacks though, to being the humblest life-form swimming in this rich soup. One problem used to be the lack of studio space. I interviewed a former Federal Reserve governor, both perched on my unmade hotel bed, and both reeling from the stink of ripe cheese in the fridge – bought because there was no time for hot meals.

The experience of the C-suite brigade is different: exclusive parties hosted by venture capital firms, invigorating skiing and gourmet delights. The networking never stops. Pitches are made in 30 seconds, careers boosted in schmoozing over coffee, and mouth-watering deals agreed in the nooks and crannies of the Davos Congress Centre.

And that takes me back to this year’s focus of ‘Resilient Dynamism’, and catchy titles meant to reflect the zeitgeist. In January 2008, the motto was the ‘Power of Collaborative Innovation’. A coincidence, perhaps, that later that year we reaped the rewards of untrammelled innovation of the financial stripe, when Lehman Brothers collapsed, triggering the worst crisis since the Jazz Age.

In 2009, the overall theme was ‘Shaping the Post-Crisis World’: quite rightly a great deal of breast-beating went on. The following year was more optimistic with ‘Rethink, Redesign, Rebuild’. A bleaker mood came in 2011 with ‘Shared Norms for the New Reality’, and by 2012 we reached ‘The Great Transformation: Shaping New Models’.

You do wonder whether any of these mottos bore fruit. Have we rethought and rebuilt, or shaped the post-crisis world anew? The rethinking may have been done by roomfuls of ‘Davos Man’ (they are mostly men) but the rebuilding is less certain. Financial regulations have been tightened in some countries but there’s still fierce debate over whether it’s gone far enough, or too far. Take the continuing arguments over the Dodd Frank Act in the USA: whether it’s stifling business or letting it run riot. Global capitalism has been discussed ad nauseum but little changed. The eurozone crisis staggers on despite hundreds of Davos hours spent debating it. Indeed, it was the biggest source of concern for last year’s delegates.

Perhaps, though, we expect too much from this event in terms of clear and measurable outcomes. If you have two and half thousand of the world’s smartest and most entrepreneurial beings in one small space, you naturally expect a lot. In fact, the Swiss businessman Professor Klaus Schwab who founded the WEF has never pretended that Davos is a decision-making body. He says it is committed to “improving the state of the world” by engaging society’s leaders to shape agendas.

The forum is not just about the views of the powerful. Every year, alongside the political leaders and the business nabobs, dissenting voices are invited to speak, including NGOs such as Greenpeace, student leaders, spiritual leaders and anti-poverty groups. They and the billionaires grapple with issues such as climate change, health and inequality, as well as global economic imbalances. It’s high-minded and earnest, the stated aim to “elaborate bold ideas and promote innovative solutions”. Professor Schwab himself has been outspoken about capitalism, suggesting that in its current form, it “no longer fits the world around us”.

If you take the optimistic view, maybe there’s a slow distillation of change that may drip out of all those panels and committees and plenary sessions. Perhaps business will be done differently as a result, even if it’s at the edges. We’ll never know.

There is no way, either, to measure whether the world economy will be made more dynamic or more resilient by this year’s beanfeast. The one certainty is that the seething crowd of business leaders will hobnob and find new and inventive ways to make money together.

So I have a plan. Maybe the coveted WEF passes that delegates wear should each contain a listening device to record all the business deals done in the chilly environs of Davos. WEF staff could listen in and estimate the size of these in dollars. The total might bring a smile to all our faces, and lasting respect for the real economic stimulus from Davos. Forget ‘Resilient Dynamism’, the theme would be ‘Deals – Bring ‘Em On!’

About the author:

Lesley Curwen presents BBC business programmes, including Business Daily for the World Service, plus business news on Today and the BBC News Channel. She has made award-winning documentaries on economics and personal finance


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