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Viewpoint: This was my 18th Davos. And each time it feels different


Why different this time? This is partly because variations are more or less constant, and because I am now listening – and talking – with at least three mindsets.

One is as the owner and chairman of Ferd where I’m trying to understand risks and opportunities; two, in the same role but with a different focus, where I’m trying to learn about new ways and instruments to make an impact through financing social innovation; and three is as chair of the Council of Ethics for the  Norwegian Sovereign Fund, where I’m hoping to understand risk of companies breaching norms in human rights, corruption and environmental damage.

Here are some observations this time around, of course very coloured by the sessions I attended and the people I met, mostly by coincidence.

There were more heads of state than ever. And more sessions outside the World Economic Forum than ever. Both adding themes, topics, limousines, security and lines to get your coat. And the mood was upbeat, indeed, bordering on exuberance.

In fact, the head of Barclays Bank said “it felt like 2006” – a reference to the period when banks were at the acme of their success before the financial crisis of 2008. And although banks have a more focused strategy now than then, according to the Harvard economist Kenneth Rogoff, things on that front aren’t all good. As he said: central banks “have no plan A” in place now.

Besides, the stress tests for banks probably don’t include the factor which will cause the next crisis. But most felt there will be debt angle to the crisis, and China could be among the possible triggers. The world’s second-biggest economy, unsurprisingly, was a topic in many other themes as well. As was cybersecurity.

So when will we have a downturn? Pundits during the WEF have historically had a low hit rate in predicting when this will happen. So, for what it’s worth, most say it will not be a “regular crisis” in 2018, but rather a correction in the equity markets. By the way, at the end of last year, Ferd started to take down exposure to the equity markets.

Welcoming 2018 at Davos

But the young and hip crowd were always hanging out in front of one of the cryptocurrency lounges – and they were exuberant. I must admit the elation sounds somewhat like that you might hear from base-jumpers (you know the ones with the wing-suits). Sadly, sooner or later it ends in tears.

Still, artificial intelligence, blockchain and cryptocurrencies, were high on the agenda, although perhaps more so off the regular program than on. Unfortunately, I do not see the thinking on the ethics of all this keeping up with the technical developments. What to make of it all remains to be seen, but at least AI and blockchain will change almost everything.

Of course, these changes will require new skills for new tasks in new jobs. And there is a serious concern among many that both getting the necessary skills to implement these and the reskilling of those losing their jobs, is severely underinvested. These changes could also increase inequalities.

Luckily, there are new initiatives being launched to address employment disruption from these developments, and of course to tackle existing inequality as well. Many of them are public-private partnerships and some are also possible to invest in. The sense of responsibility is rising.

A couple of related, but unorthodox topics were also discussed like Basic Universal Pay, which is being piloted in more and more places. And the results from these efforts are surprising. In fact, Basic Universal Pay may actually work. Yes, I know, I was sceptical too, but let’s give it a chance.

And new innovation in financing social change is moving swiftly on as well, like a Social Impact Bond that gives women in India female hygiene products. And we are no longer discussing the definition of impact investment, we are simply doing it.

Nevertheless, the measuring and reporting of impact investment were much discussed. And this also goes for the SDGs (the 17 Sustainable Development Goals). There is some frustration that companies are not dedicated to this yet and investors are not asking about it. I suggested to translate them into risks. That usually seems to get the market’s attention.

And Trump? Well, Trump is Trump, in Davos or elsewhere. His speech would have been quite up-to-date at about the time when my father started going to the World Economic Forum – in 1976.