Davos power rankings: Who’s up, who’s down and who’s out?
After another year of panels, colloquia, summits, meetings, whispers and skiing, the Davos emissaries headed home with a few new connections and catchphrases (“Resilient Dynamism” forever!). After four years of gloomy predictions and summits dominated by post-financial crisis concerns, this year the mood was significantly more positive. While I would argue that the pendulum of sentiment has swung too far, there are reasons to be cautiously optimistic. Based on my observations at the 2013 World Economic Forum, here’s a power ranking of who’s up, who’s down and who’s off the radar—according to Davos attendees, at least.
United States: The politics of Washington were all but forgotten. With the so-called fiscal cliff standoff resolved and no current budget battle hurdles (at least for the next few weeks), there were no urgent crises to distract Davos from the strong American economic fundamentals. Instead, the chatter was about insourcing, the energy revolution and the positive growth outlook this year – all sources of a (perhaps inflated) exuberance.
Eurozone: Almost every eurozone leader of merit turned up, and so the chatter was good. (Davos is an easy place to please, as long as you put in the effort.) Mario Draghi and Angela Merkel charmed, but Christine Lagarde was the belle of the ball. She stole the show with her keynote speech; one of her strongest messages was the need to narrow the gender gap, not only from an equal rights perspective but also because “it makes economic sense to improve the situation of women.” The Europeans, it was clear, had reached bottom, and are now quite ready to make their way back from whence they came. While they’re not there yet, they’re definitely closer than last year.
Japan: For the first time since I can remember, the Japanese delegation seemed to have a certain confidence and an admirable level of coordination. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe dialed in via satellite to give a brief address; Japanese representatives had their talking points in order; and Japan Night – a party 15 minutes from the Congress Centre (somewhat of a trek for the rarified air of Davos) – was a huge success, with 1,000 attendees. Most importantly, people seem, for now, comfortable with “Abenomics” and its reliance on government-supplied stimulus.
Sub-Saharan Africa: There were a record number of heads of state and ministers from Africa this year, and, unlike in the past, they played a central role. They were on all sorts of major panels and weren’t just consigned to talking about African issues. This year, many African players were seen as emerging markets in their own right.
Britain: David Cameron’s speech in London announcing Britain’s potential withdrawal from the European Union was all the rage here…but not the right kind. Cameron was hammered with questions during his Davos appearance, and while people were polite enough in public, based on what I heard in private, blokes were less kind. Delegates from corporations, eurozone countries and financial enterprises were all nervous about the uncertainty that Cameron had injected into the market — and it’s a cloud that could hang over the United Kingdom for five years, given his call for a referendum by 2017. As Sir Martin Sorrell, chief executive of the WPP Group, said, Cameron may have created a “gray swan” that will limit investment in Britain.
Russia: Dmitry Medvedev gave the worst major speech of the conference. It was wooden, full of platitudes, and left nobody impressed. In response to 78 percent of Davos attendees’ voting that governance was the biggest challenge in Russia, Medvedev shrugged off negative outlooks, saying, “It’s good that the scenarios are pessimistic. Because optimistic ones can get the government carried away.” I’ve long felt that Russia, faltering economically and questionable politically, should be thrown out of the BRICs. Davos now agrees.
Brazil: Nightclub tragedies aside, Brazil has had a quiet year. But quiet isn’t what Brazil has been historically, as an A-grade emerging market on a strong development path. Accordingly, Brazil has lost some momentum in the halls of Davos. Growth is slowing – economists are estimating its GDP will increase only 3.1 percent in 2013, falling short of the high standards Davos holds it to.
Middle East: A panel on Syria was the conference’s bleakest. Nobody knows what to do. Violence is expanding in Egypt, Mali threatens to become a quagmire, and the Afghanistan-Pakistan riddle still isn’t solved. No good stories here. This issue is beginning to feel like the climate change debate: Everyone at Davos agrees it’s a critical issue that’s only getting worse, and it appears intractable with no viable path forward.
OFF THE RADAR
China: For the world’s second-largest economy, China’s presence at the World Economic Forum was decidedly light. In 2012, Davos was scheduled during the Chinese New Year; the Chinese blamed their absence on the scheduling conflict. This year there was no such excuse, and no emissaries of a high level attended. That’s surprising, until you remember Davos is devoted to issues of transparency, democracy, free markets and the rule of law. Not exactly Chinese hobbyhorses.
India: Last year, India had a marketing campaign at Davos called ”Incredible !ndia.” This year it might as well have been ”Invisible India.” The country isn’t doing well, with major corruption issues at home and a limited corporate presence abroad. The Indian delegation conducted some joint events with African attendees, and India came away outshined.
Climate change: There were plenty of people talking about the looming, growing disaster of our time. But what’s being done? Nothing at Davos, certainly.
Inequality: Davos this year was much more about elites finally catching their breath and looking to put the financial crisis in the rearview mirror. When they finally survey what the last few years have wrought, they’ll find a middle class that’s still struggling to stay above water. Despite thought leaders trying to drive inequality to the top of the agenda, we just didn’t see enough of a wakeup call in which the urgency of the situation became clear to Davos attendees.
This column is based off of a transcribed interview with Bremmer.
PHOTO: A delegate is silhouetted as she passes by a sign for the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos January 26, 2013. REUTERS/Pascal Lauener