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Posted by George Colony on February 4, 2010
This was my ninth visit to the World Economic Forum – the global cocktail party/speechathon that brings together a unique mix of CEOs, government leaders, artists, scientists, philanthropists, regulators, and non-profits in Davos Switzerland. Or, as one reporter noted, it was a meeting of the people who have screwed up the world in the last two years.
Here are my quick personal observations. Please excuse the length of this post -- the volume of interesting facts overwhelmed my editing sensibilities.
1) Compared with the gloom of last year, members were far more optimistic and positive about the economy. Most executives I spoke with said that their business began to turn in Q3 and Q4 of 2009 and that their prospects for 2010 were brightening. That said, economists continually highlighted the fragility of the recovery. The head of the IMF said that the discontinuation of stimulus packages will cause the recovery to sputter. He also said that it may take between five and seven years for some countries to return to “normalcy,” whatever that is.
2) We are at an historical economic articulation point – with the Chinese and the American/European economic models standing in stark contrast. Emerging countries like Vietnam and Brazil are looking at the two models and wondering if distributed decision-making/democratic capitalism is still a viable way forward given its recent disintegration. In contrast, China’s command and control economy grew at 7% through the recession and it appears to be right back to 9% growth. China bulls roamed the halls of Davos – spouting the growing conventional wisdom that China will easily be the dominant world economy by 2040.
3) Why don’t I believe this? I saw signs of U.S. creativity and innovation everywhere at Davos. Startups like Boston Power (twice as much power per square meter of battery), Metabolix (biodegradable plastic), Ning (special interest social networks) were in evidence. The big tech news during Davos didn’t come from China – it came from an American company (Apple). Western venture capitalists seemed to be perched in every corner, looking for their next deal.
4) The battle lines were starkly drawn when Eric Schmidt, the CEO of Google, stated that, “We want to improve the lives of the Chinese people by opposing censorship in that country.” There it was, simply stated: U.S. openness versus the more controlled model of China.
5) I was a speaker at a session on social computing along with most of the CEOs of the social companies. Surprisingly, there were few cogently-stated visions of social’s future. My conclusion: this is a very immature and young market. No one really knows anything yet – how to make money, the value of social, and the future of the technology.
6) The Apple iPad was much discussed. The Davos consensus (if that’s worth anything) is that it’s a niche product – not destined for the scale of the iPhone or the iPod. There was a lot of talk about, “…I guess I’ll be hanging on to my Kindle for a few more years.” But hey, there hasn’t been a lot of upside in underestimating Steve Jobs over the last few years…
7) When I asked Ian Livingston, the new CEO of British Telecom, about Davos, he said: “The world is divided into two groups: those that are desperately trying to get to Davos, and those that are desperately trying to get out of Davos.” He wouldn’t tell me which group he was in…
8) Fun facts from the tech dinner I attended: From Paul Sagan, CEO of Akamai: “Only 1% of all video viewed in U.S. homes is carried on broadband data.” 4,000 Indian villages are now networked using VSAT – enabling Indians even in remote villages to trade stocks and bonds. This network has now made the Indian stock exchange the third busiest in the world. Ever wonder why wind power companies have trouble connecting to power grids? There are 384 competing standards for smart grids in the U.S. alone… Maybe we need some Chinese-style decision-making to fix this problem…
9) I went to a session on aging. Life expectancy worldwide has risen 20 years in the last 50 years – amazing!! This has meant that chronic disease (e.g., Alzheimers, Parkinsons) are now more prevalent and costly than sudden diseases (cancer, heart disease). David Bloom, professor of economics and demography at Harvard noted that, “If progress is built on capital and labor, the aged give neither.” So can societies afford old age? It now appears, according to Bloom, that with birth rates rising in many countries, that there will be enough people in the work force to support the growing groups of aged. And older people will be working longer, further relieving the social support burden.
10) Green has reached the tipping point. Prime Ministers and Ministers of Trade talked about “greenizing” their economies. Felipe Calderon – the President of Mexico and the host of the next UN summit on global warming to be held in Cancun – said that the two biggest problems facing mankind are global warming and the division between rich and poor. He thinks that they can be linked – e.g., re-foresting Haiti. According to Calderon, “…we can fix poverty and climate change at the same time.” But he also noted that you can’t grow China at 9% per year and cut worldwide CO2 emissions . Ed Markey, Congressman from Massachusetts, was hopeful that the U.S. Congress will pass substantive legislation to lower American CO2. As he pointed out, “We must set an example. You can’t preach temperance from a bar stool.”
11) I went to a session on personalized medicine. This is the concept that in the future, people will have different medications, based on their specific DNA. You can now have your DNA decoded for around $5,000 in six days. The report will reveal your chances of developing ALS, Parkinsons, and a number of other diseases. Paul Stoeffels, head of R&D at Johnson and Johnson, believes that Alzheimers and many cancers will be defeated using DNA-targeted medications. Many HIV patients are presently treated this way – transforming the disease from a terminal to a chronic affliction.
12) A session on the status of banking, real estate, hedge funds, and the media was fascinating. These are the three industries that took down the economy, and the one industry that was supposed to be warning the world but didn’t. Josef Ackermann, head of Deustsche Bank, said it best: “Never have so few done so much damage to so many.” While all of the speakers gave lip service to new regulation, they are all urging “caution,” “go slow,” and “thoughtfulness.” In other words, make sure you don’t: A) get me fired, and B) cut my compensation. This cast of characters still doesn’t understand that, in the words of Niall Ferguson, professor of economics at Harvard, “There will be blood.” Politicians (starting with Obama) are going to have to get big changes (including rolling some heads) in the guilty industries if they are going to get re-elected.
13) Larry Summers, economic adviser to Obama, had some interesting comments. He thought that we were having a “Statistical recovery but not a human recovery.” He noted that in the U.S., for men aged 25-54, unemployment has become a systemic problem. One in five men in the U.S. are not working – contrasted with the 1960s when 95% of men of that age-group worked. Another problem with the recovery is that medium-sized businesses still do not have access to credit.
14) I always go to Davos with one question to ask all of the luminaries. This year’s question was: “Coming out of the recession, what is your number one priority?” Nearly every leader answered the question in a similar way: “Focus on growth.” As one executive said: “My organization has been hunkered down for two years – now is the time to get moving again.” I think that’s about as bullish a signal as I could have imagined coming out of Davos.
I hope that these observations and thoughts are helpful. I’d love to get your comments and conversation.