Davos 2012: Has capitalism got a future?

25.01.2012 09:25

BBC: Has capitalism got a future? Is it fit for the 21st Century? And if it has and is, how must capitalism change?

The organisers of this year's World Economic Forum (WEF) have put some pretty crunchy questions on the agenda.

But as more than 2,600 of the world's richest and most powerful people come to the Swiss mountain village of Davos to discuss the state of the world, is it a topic that they want to talk about?

For some, these are clearly the right questions. "Is capitalism working? Will we grow again? Is the Western model still working?" asks John Griffith-Jones, the UK and Europe chairman of accounting giant KPMG.

"I'm really interested in hearing people talk about that," he says.

Mr Griffith-Jones talks of the need to find a "concept of responsible capitalism" and worries that even if Davos man and woman find a consensus, it will not be one that is very clear to people in the wider world.

The founder and driving force of the forum, Prof Klaus Schwab, is even blunter. "Capitalism in its current form no longer fits the world around us," he says.

Occupy WEF
Those are statements and questions that one would rather expect to hear from the anti-capitalist protesters who have come to Davos, and who were busy over the weekend building snow igloos and preparing a 50-people camp as part of their Occupy WEF protest.
"We'll make small actions in the village. We're going to disturb things a little bit,'' says organiser David Roth, president of the Swiss social democrat youth organisation Juso, as he prepares to camp out all week.

But heavy snow, bitter cold and the highly efficient forces of the Swiss police and army will make major protests unlikely.

It will be left to the WEF's participants and organisers to highlight the world's failings.

Prof Schwab speaks of a "dystopian future", where political and economic elites "are in danger of completely losing the confidence of future generations".

Indeed, a global survey released just days before the start of Davos, the Edelman Trust Barometer, suggests there has been a sharp drop in public trust, not just in in business but especially in governments around the world.

Davos, in its very own way, illustrates that even for well-paid business leaders, the scars of the economic crisis of the past four years are still painful.

The eurozone, the financial sector, poverty, inequality, corporate responsibility and the rise of China: They all feature heavily in both the sessions organised by the forum, which is always eager to lob in a few inconvenient questions, and the topics of many of the events organised by banks, industry groups and corporate giants.

It is gloomy business, albeit discussed while scoffing haute cuisine breakfasts, lunches and dinners in Davos' five-star hotels.

Good news
There is a danger, says David Jones, chief executive of French advertising firm Havas, that amid all the gloom the good news will be overlooked.

"I believe that things will not be as cataclysmic as many predict," he says, pointing to how China and India are still growing well, and how there has been a few good data out of the eurozone recently.

"But what tends to happen is that one topic will dominate everything."
Mr Jones is worried that key issues such as youth unemployment and global warming could be pushed to the sidelines.

Being fixated on the crisis could also make companies overlook the fact that doing business is changing in very fundamental ways.

Mr Jones calls it the "age of damage", where "social media create a world of radical transparency".

"Whether you are the head of an Arab country, the boss of BP, a misbehaving fashion designer or a footballer," he says, "basically what we are seeing every single day is the power of people to make leaders behave the way they want them to be."

Party is not over
Despite the gloomy mood music, there will still be plenty of the normal "Davos spirit" dominating the discussions in the event's main venue, the Congress Centre, and the surrounding hotels.

After all, no entrepreneur or business leader in his right mind would come to Davos and let the opportunity for some serious networking go to waste.

On Sunday, one investor at the tech-heavy DLD Conference in Munich was busy preparing the ground for some joint fund-raising with other venture capitalists, with the finishing touches to be applied this week in Davos.

And there are still plenty of parties and private dinners to be had. Some more exclusive, others less so.

The future may be uncertain, but as every businessman at the forum will tell you, risks harbour opportunity.

The Davos party is not over yet.

Davos 2012 starts with worries about eurozone crisis

The eurozone crisis and its global impact are set to dominate as the World Economic Forum (WEF) gets under way.

Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel will open the annual meeting of some 2,600 top business leaders and politicians in the Swiss mountain resort Davos.

One topic tackled in numerous debates is the future of capitalism itself.

Also on the agenda are issues like the rise of China, financial regulation, and the aftermath of popular protests around the world.

The forum, now in its 42nd year, expects to attract nearly 40 heads of government and state, 19 of the world's 20 most influential central bankers, numerous government officials and the bosses of some of the world's largest companies.

They will mix with dozens of political activists and trade union leaders, young entrepreneurs and leading academics.

The five-day event is not expected to deliver any results, and the organisers stress that this is not what it was designed for.

However, the Davos debates often set the agenda and can determine the mood for weeks if not months to come.

Economic gloom
The forum's start, however, does not bode well.

The event gets under way on Wednesday after a drumbeat of bad news, starting on Monday with a survey that suggested both businesses and governments have lost the trust of the public, followed by dire warnings from the International Monetary Fund that the global economy was in a "danger zone" once again, and rounded off with a survey of global chief executives that indicated a sharp collapse of business confidence around the world.

However, there are indications that the mood in Davos could turn, with many top bosses telling BBC reporters that during the past few weeks they started to feel much more upbeat about the global economy.

The real Davos business
Economic debates and speeches by political leaders may be grabbing the headlines, but the real business of Davos will be conducted elsewhere - in the corridors, meeting rooms of the Davos Congress Centre and at the numerous dinners and parties on the sidelines of the event.

The real purpose of Davos, after all, is bringing business leaders together to network and exchange ideas.
"You can basically meet in one week some 15 or 20 key people, where otherwise you'd have to fly 150,000 miles over 12 months," says David Jones, chief executive of French advertising firm Havas.

With personal assistants and public relations officers removed, and the immediate pressure of daily work left behind in the office, the world's top bosses can focus on making connections, on pitching or finding the next big deal, hearing about new technologies, or simply recharging their minds with fresh ideas.

With thick packs of business cards at the ready, and smartphones constantly in sight, the executives at Davos are a sight to behold.

The deal
New friends are found, old friendships are renewed, the hungry gaze always on the look-out for the next important or interesting person to meet.

With security badges dangling on short elastic bands from people's necks, the Davos glance - a quick but not so stealthy glance at the opposite person's name and affiliation - allows for quick work as new opportunities are sought.

Sometimes it is luck, sometimes design, as executives meet and talk about their business.

There are plenty of Davos moments - like the telecoms entrepreneur who explains his technological breakthrough to furiously nodding executives of a giant firm in the field; and in turn his delight when they let him know that their company has found a - still secret - solution for the one problem which which he was still grappling.

There is talk of synergies, the need to meet soon, and swiftly business cards are exchanged and meetings arranged.

Celebrities no more
Some five or six years ago, at the height of the financial boom, Davos briefly looked set to descend into a celebrity farce.

Business and economics were pushed aside as journalists (and bosses) jostled for the attention of visiting stars like Angelina Jolie, Michael Douglas, Claudia Schiffer, Richard Gere and Sharon Stone.

These days are long gone, and Davos has returned to its more sober self.

Having said that, sober is probably a relative term. Western economies may be doing poorly but most companies, lean and mean after three years of cutting costs, are highly profitable again.

The parties at Davos may not reach the heights or excesses of years past for some time to come. But there are enough banks and accounting firms and technology giants to ensure that the wine and fine food will be flowing freely in the nights to come.

By Tim Weber