Thursday, January 26, 2012
Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel gave yesterday’s opening address to the 42nd meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF), which is facing a distinctly different geo-political landscape from twelve months ago. Outside the WEF security cordon, in the sub-zero temperatures of Davos’ train station car park, the local incarnation of the Occupy movement are setting up ‘Camp Igloo’; but, with little hope of the archetypes of the 1%, ‘Davos Man’, arriving by public transport and seeing their sub-zero protest.
David Roth, heading the Swiss centre-left’s youth wing — and an organiser of ‘Camp Igloo’, echoes much of the sentiment from ‘Occupy’ protests around the world; “[a]t meetings the rest of society is excluded from, this powerful ‘1 percent’ negotiates and decides about the fate of the other 99 percent of this world, […] economic and financial concentration of power in a small, privileged minority leads to a dictatorship over the rest of us. The motto ‘one person, one vote’ is no longer valid, but ‘one dollar, one vote’.”
Roth’s characterisation of ‘Davos Man’, a term coined by the Professor Samuel Huntington of Harvard University, is more emotive than that of the late professor who saw ‘Davos man’ as “[having…] little need for national loyalty, view[ing] national boundaries as obstacles that thankfully are vanishing, and see[ing] national governments as residues from the past whose only useful function is to facilitate the elite’s global operations”.
As Reuters highlights, many attendees will opt to make their way from Zurich to Davos by private jet, or helicopter, and the WEF itself provides handouts indicating the cost of such is 5,100 Swiss francs (approx. 5,500 USD, 3,500 GBP, 4,200 EUR). In contrast: travelling by rail, even when opting for first class — without an advance booking, is 145 Swiss francs (approx. 155 USD, 100 GBP).
Shifting fortunes see several past attendees missing this year’s exclusive get-together in the alpine resort; for a second year running — and now caught up in the UK phone hacking scandal being scrutinised by Lord Leveson’s inquiry — media mogul Rupert Murdoch will not be attending. Nor will the former head of financial services company UBS Oswald Gruebel, who resigned in the wake of US$2.3 billion losses incurred through unauthorised trading; likewise, Philipp Hildebrand, the ex-head of the Swiss National Bank, is absent following scandal associated with his wife’s currency trading activities; and, although the sexual assault charges against Dominique Strauss-Kahn were dropped, having stepped down as managing director of the International Monetary Fund Strauss-Kahn will also be absent.
As the #OccupyWEF protesters were building igloos last weekend, an anti-WEF protest in the Swiss capital Berne was broken up by police, who stated their intent to prosecute participants in the illegal protest. Allegations of calls for violent protest action led to a high number of officers being involved. In the aftermath, charges of breach of the peace are to be brought against 153 people, with some targeted for more serious offences. At least one group involved in the protest described the police response as “disproportionate”.
At ‘Camp Igloo’ Roth says he is seeking discussions with the WEF’s expected 2,000 attendees; but his voice, and that of others in the worldwide ‘Occupy’ movement, is unlikely to be given a platform in the opening debate, “Is 20th-century capitalism failing 21st-century society?” He, and others taking part in this Swiss incarnation of the ‘Occupy’ movement, are still considering an invite to a side-session issued by the World Economic Forum’s founder, Klaus Schwab; commenting on the invite Roth told the Associated Press they would prefer a debate at a more neutral venue.
As has been the case for several years now, the annual Forum meeting in Davos was preceded with the release of a special report by the World Economic Forum into risks seen as likely to have an impact the in the coming decade. The 2012 Global Risks Report is a hefty document; the 64-page report is backed with a variety of visualisation tools designed to allow the interrelations between risks to be viewed, how risks interact modelled, and their potential impacts considered — as assessed by the WEF’s panel of nearly 500 experts.
As one would expect, economic risks top both the 2012 impact and likelihood charts. Climate change is pushed somewhat further down the list of concerns likely to drive discussions in Davos. “Major systemic financial failure” — the collapse of a globally important financial institution, or world currency, is selected as the risk which carries the most potential impact.
However, “Chronic fiscal imbalances” — failing to address excessive government debt, and “Severe income disparity” — a widening of the the gulf between rich and poor, top the list of most likely risks.
At the other end of the tables, disagreeing respectively with the weight last year’s Wikinews report gave to orbital debris, and the Motion Picture Association of America’s (MPAA) fight with the Internet over copyright legislation, the 2012 Global Risks Report places “Proliferation of Orbital Debris” and “Failure of intellectual property regime” bottom of the league in terms of potential impact.
In 2011, with the current global economic crisis well under-way, “Fiscal crises” topped the WEF risks with the largest potential impact in the next ten years. However, perceived as most likely a year ago, “Storms and cyclones”, “Flooding”, and “Biodiversity loss” — all climate-change related points — were placed ahead of “Economic disparity” and “Fiscal crises”.
More mundane risks overtake the spectre of terrorism when contrasting this year’s report with the 2011 one; volatility in the prices of commodities, consumer goods, and energy, and the security of water supplies are all now ranked as more likely risks than terrorism — though the 2011 report did rank some of these concerns as having a higher potential impact. A significant shift in perception sees the 2012 report highlight food shortages almost as likely a risk the world will face over the next decade; and, one with a far more significant impact.
Attending the World Economic Forum at Davos is more than just an opportunity to discuss the current state of the global economy, and review the risks which face countries around the world. With such a high number of political and business leaders in attendance, it is an ideal opportunity to pursue new trade deals.
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper is, in addition to being a keynote speaker, expected to pursue improved relations with European and Asian trade partners at private meetings on the Forum sidelines. The Toronto Star reports Harper is likely to push forward an under-negotiation Canadian-European free-trade agreement, and hold closed-door discussions prior to next month’s planned trip to China.
Similarly, Canadian trade minister Ed Fast is expected to meet South Korean counterparts to discuss an equivalent deal to the preferential ones between the Asian nation and the US and Europe. Fast’s deal does, however, face opposition at home; the Canadian Auto Workers union asserts that such a deal would put 33,0000 jobs at-risk.
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British Prime Minister David Cameron and chancellor George Osborne are expected to discuss a possible increase of UK funding to the International Monetary Fund (IMF); however, with the UK responsible for 4.5% of the US$400 billion in the IMF’s lending fund, backbench MPs have warned that committing any additional funds could provoke a Conservative revolt in parliament. Tuesday’s IMF cut of predicted global growth from 4% to 3.3%, warnings of a likely Eurozone recession in 2012, and ongoing problems with Greek financial restructuring, are likely discussion topics at Davos — as well as amongst UK backbench MPs who see adding to the IMF war-chest as bailing out failed European economies.
South Africa, less centre-stage during the 2011 Forum, will be looking to improve relationships and take advantage of their higher profile. President Jacob Zuma and several cabinet members are attending sessions and discussions; whilst former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown is to moderate a session, “Africa — From Transition to Transformation“, with Nigeria, Guinea, and South Sudan’s presidents on the panel. Wal-mart’s CEO Doug McMillon is to lead a dinner session, “Shared Opportunities for Africa’s Future” — highlighting larger multinationals looking towards the continent for new opportunities.
Davos may also serve as a place to progress disputes out of the public eye; a high-profile dispute between Chile’s state-owned copper mining business, Codelco, and Anglo American plc over the 5.39 billion USD sale of a near-quarter stake in their Chilean operations to Japan’s Mitsubishi, prompted the Financial Times to speculate that, as the respective company chiefs — Diego Hernández and Cynthia Carroll — are expected to attend, they could privately discuss the spat during the Forum.