Davos Notebook

Five themes for Davos

Top (L-R): Steve Clarke, Natsuko Waki, Gerard Wynn, Martin Howell
Bottom (L-R): Peter Thal Larsen, Felix Salmon, Ben Hirschler, Krista Hughes

Reuters will have a multimedia team of 20 journalists plus editors and three columnists on site covering the Jan. 27-31 World Economic Forum annual meeting.

This year we are focusing our news coverage around five global themes that are shaping economics, politics and investment opportunities in 2010.  Our in-depth reports will draw on the expertise of our specialist correspondents from around the world to help inform the Davos conversation. These reports will be complemented by on-the-ground coverage, exclusive text and TV interviews, as well as a live blog aggregating the best Davos coverage on the web and on Twitter. We’ll be exploring the probing questions behind efforts to rebuild the world economy and financial system two years after the credit crisis.

Look for these special reports:

China Inc’s growing pains

China has emerged from the financial crisis emboldened with huge economic clout, vast FX reserves and growing diplomatic influence. To build its global presence, however, it needs brands, managerial expertise and technology. China Economics Editor Alan Wheatley asks – How will it muscle up?  Will it be through internal growth or foreign acquisitions? And what are the political and industrial risks, rewards and pitfalls of each approach – for China and the world http://www.reuters.com/subjects/davos/china

New investment frontiers:  where is the next big thing? (Tuesday)

The financial crisis taught us risk hides in unexpected places — from MBS securities or SIV funds to Iceland or Dubai.  As risk appetite returns and investors seek new venues, this makes Africa looks less scary than before. It is a resource-rich continent, facing a more rapid return to growth than most developed countries and sees another chance for a fresh start. This time round, could fewer wars and conflicts, debt forgiveness and an IT revolution secure Africa a firmer place in the investment firmament?  Africa Investment Correspondent Ed Cropley and special correspondent Ben Hirschler take a closer look.

Risk Takers Anonymous

An eminent scientist who studies the brain and economics thinks that the financial industry in essence became addicted and insensitive to both risk and reward.

“The finance industry was adapting to the level or risk,” said Gregory Berns a professor at Emory University in Atlanta and a leader in the relatively new field of neuroeconomics.

“It is an insidious process, and you are not aware of it. You are addicted to returns, you are addicted to risk, you are addicted to cocaine – its all the same as far the brain goes.”

Banks to be disintermediated? or is that just replaced?

Is it actually distintermediation if the thing being disintermediated has ceased to function?

Henry Kravis of Kohlberg Kravis Roberts said in Davos that, as in essence banks aren’t playing their role of intermediating debt capital for buyouts, he would be going straight to the source, doing deals directly with investors who want to fund debt for deals.

Of course many of the institutions that used to fund buyouts, CLOs and CDOs for example, no longer exist and many like hedge funds have lower appetite. He acknowledged that leverage has “come down tremendously,” which might get the prize for biggest understatement of the week.

Overheard in Davos

One of the best things about Davos is the conversations you overhear. It’s like no place else.

Sitting minding my own business, typing away I became aware of a central banker from a medium sized emerging market sitting nearby. He was joined by a gentleman from a bank in his home country. After a few muffled preliminaries the central banks said:

“So, how much trouble are you in?”

The banker responded in what sounded like soothing tones but I couldn’t make out exactly what he was saying. The only other line that came through clearly was that after a long speech the banker said to the central banker, with an air of exasperation.:

Hank Paulson is not Gavrilo Princip, Lehman is not the Archduke Franz Ferdinand

Was letting Lehman go down the biggest mistake of the crisis? Many, including George Soros in the Financial Times, have argued that letting Lehman go down sowed panic to markets, consumers and businesses.

Not so fast, says Harvard historian Niall Ferguson, in an interview in Davos:

“My position is this is a typical error of historical understanding in which a single event is blamed for much more than it can possibly have caused. You can say ‘Hank Paulson is to blame for my troubles’ and if you can change one thing in the story it would have a happy ending.

It’s like saying if only Princip had not shot the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914 there wouldn’t have been a First World War.

from James Saft:

Stephen Roach – protectionism a threat

Stephen Roach of Morgan Stanley, who pretty much called it at last year's Davos, when consensus was for no recession in the "real" economy and decoupling of emerging markets, is gloomy again. Speaking with him this morning after he did an interview with Reuters on Davos Today, Roach said that there was a real threat of protectionism as politicians come under pressure from rising unemployment. The U.S. and China relationship will be key, he said.

On U.S. real estate - a continuing issue for banks and the economy:

"The interplay between the property and financial sectors has been ground zero of this crisis.

The problem was the banks played the property bubble just like consumers did and so we are all in this together."

from James Saft:

Balance of power upended at Davos

So, back we go next week to Davos for the World Economic Forum 2009, titled this year "Shaping the post-crisis world."

Except the crisis ain't over yet and shaping the world while it is happening is proving to be about as easy as tying your shoes while riding a bicycle.

Let's dial back briefly to those more innocent days in 2008 and remember what was being discussed at Davos then.