Fear in Davos

By Felix Salmon
January 25, 2012

It’s highly unscientific and anecdotal, but the winner by far of the most-talked-about-person-in-Davos award, at least when it comes to people in my earshot, is George Soros.

Soros is out of the investing game, living now as a full-time philanthropist and sage, while still keeping an eye on the fund company which bears his name and which provides him with a ten-digit income each year. Because he doesn’t have a financial book to talk, because he’s happy being brutally honest, and because he’s giving voice to the plutocrats’ darkest fears, Soros seems to encapsulate Davos 2012 like no one else.

Sitting in his 33rd-floor corner office high above Seventh Avenue in New York, preparing for his trip to Davos, he is more concerned with surviving than staying rich. “At times like these, survival is the most important thing,” he says, peering through his owlish glasses and brushing wisps of gray hair off his forehead. He doesn’t just mean it’s time to protect your assets. He means it’s time to stave off disaster. As he sees it, the world faces one of the most dangerous periods of modern history—a period of “evil.” Europe is confronting a descent into chaos and conflict. In America he predicts riots on the streets that will lead to a brutal clampdown that will dramatically curtail civil liberties. The global economic system could even collapse altogether.

No one but Soros will actually say these things, at Davos — but everybody here fears them, which is one reason why we have the slightly ludicrous sight of billionaires bellyaching about the global burdens of inequality.

Security this year is tighter than ever — the first rule of security at these events is that it can only get ratcheted up, rather than loosened at all — and there’s a besieged feeling to this Alpine town I haven’t felt before. The financial crisis concentrated minds and was seen as a big problem to be addressed and even maybe solved. But the current breakdown of trust in global institutions cuts at the heart of the World Economic Forum’s founding principle — that if you get a bunch of important people together in the same place, they can actually make a difference.

There are fewer heads of state here than there normally are; even Bill Clinton is giving Davos a miss this year. And a theme running through many of the discussions so far seems to be the question of how one manages chaos, in a world where the risk of a chaotic breakup of the European Union can be ignored no longer. To take just one example: if you’re a European bank, with loans and funding sources and depositors in many different European countries but just one unified currency, what happens if one or more of those countries decides to go its own way and leave the euro? It’s almost impossible for a bank to prepare for such an eventuality, but it represents a huge legal and financial risk.

The WEF itself, for all its efforts at internationalization, remains a very European organization, and will naturally decline in importance and relevance as Europe fractures and loses its standing on the international stage. Last year, there were crowds around television screens showing live coverage of Tahrir Square in Cairo, as delegates turned into spectators, watching the world change with no regard at all to what the plutocrats might think. This year, the feeling of powerlessness remains. Davos hubris is dissipating, to be replaced by risk management protocols. Europe risks falling apart — and there’s nothing that anybody here can do about it, if it happens. Never have the masters of the universe seemed so very human.

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