A Sigh of Relief at Davos

101507640A striking chord ran throughout the 43rd annual meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF) in January: comeback. No single commentator described it precisely as such, but in my mind it was the most dominant single thread weaving among the thousands of conversations that defined Davos this year and distinguished it from prior assemblies of the WEF, the independent international organization that engages business, political, academic and other leaders committed to improving the state of the world.

CNBC anchor Geoff Cutmore expressed it well at a closing plenary on the final day: It was the first Davos of recent years without a crisis hanging over its head, and businesses were feeling re-energized, so much so that it almost seemed as if “peace had broken out.” Financial Times Associate Editor Martin Wolf characterized the meeting as “the-sigh-of-relief Davos.”

At the same time, Davos attendees repeatedly cautioned themselves about the many risks and uncertainties that remain. Paul Singer, principal of New York-based hedge fund Elliott Management Corp., warned that in the continuing absence of global financial standards, banks are locked in a “race to the bottom.” In the five years since the financial Armageddon brought on by the banks, he noted, far too much remains unchanged within them. Former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown cautioned, “We will have financial crises over the next 30 to 40 years [because] we have failed to learn the lessons” of the past crisis.

Yet with a Sword of Damocles no longer so visible over the global economy, the firefighting of the past several years gave way this year to a healthy refocusing on the world’s most chronic problems. Both income inequality and inequality of opportunity, warned a host of speakers, had worsened in many countries; factual points whose toxic consequences were confirmed by the WEF’s 8th annual Global Risks Report. Drawing on a survey of more than 1,000 observers and experts, the report found that “severe income inequality” stood as the number one global risk of the year.

Managing Risk and Uncertainty

Many of the business leaders in Davos could see commercial opportunities in the risks and uncertainties ahead. Anand Mahindra summed it up from his own experience. After completing his MBA degree in the U.S. in 1981, he returned to India and found that he faced near complete certainty in the suffocating regulations and bureaucracy of India’s “license raj.” Rules defined or limited a wide range of business decisions, even down to the number of computers that a firm could annually import.

“I had thought that regulation was what I had to manage,” he said, “[but now] I know it’s all about [managing] uncertainty.”

Cisco Systems CEO John Chambers offered much the same assessment. “If you are risk averse, you get left behind,” he warned, especially in difficult times. Conversely, the opportunities for companies like Cisco to “break away” from its competitors are heightened in times of uncertainty and change.

As a leadership barometer, Davos certainly confirmed that confidence is back in the world’s inner circles of business and policy. At the same time, many warned against any return of the hubris that had occasioned the financial crisis of 2008-09 and advocated refocusing on the chronic problems of climate, employment, inequality and inclusion. Others said that doing so will require taking advantage of the risks and uncertainties that still abound to invent new ways for delivering services and learning about the world.

Editor’s note: This article is adapted from “A ‘Sigh of Relief’ at Davos: Confidence and Caution Shared Center Stage,” from Knowledge@Wharton. Useem is a member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Catastrophic Risks.

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