Looking Down from the Mountain Tops: Davos

This week is the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos. The mission of the WEF is, "Committed to improving the state of the world". But if you didn't know that, and were able to eavesdrop on the many bilateral meetings that take place during Davos, you might well decide that it was, "Committed to ensuring that nothing in the world ever changes".

The annual meeting is being attended by all the big global firms, dominated by those in those in the West who have a vested interest in ensuring things go on much as before.

That being said, there is little doubt the WEF, through its policy debates, can influence the regional and global agenda.

In addition to the many business leaders there are numerous politicians, opinion formers and media who gather in Davos.

There is a theme to each annual meeting. Sometimes they get it right, like last year, when it focussed on the fourth industrial revolution (even though I think we are actually in the fifth industrial revolution the key is to acknowledge the dramatic change already impacting the business and economic outlook, and which look set to continue).

This year the theme is, "Responsive and Responsible Leadership". But the question that is always asked, by attendees, as well as by outside observers is, "What is the mood?" And with everyone speaking to one another, a consensus strangely enough tends to emerge, albeit with many subplots. Sometimes it is clear. A couple years ago, when being asked this question while being interviewed live I said, last year it was negative, this year it is realistic and we will have to wait until next year to become optimistic. What about this year?

Trump, Brexit and populism, which seems to mean different things to various people, may well dominate. The latter, in turn, focusing attention on this year's round of elections across Europe, and on wider perennial economic issues such as inequality. The appearance of a Chinese President for the first time at Davos could well give a deserved focus on China. If so, it would be the Belt Road Initiative, which is the biggest infrastructure project in the world, and which will see increased overland ties between China and Western Europe via Central Asia, and on the state of the Chinese economy. But perhaps, above all else, the media will be focusing on whether the members of the Chinese President's team will meet senior US officials for insights into future bilateral relations.

While China displays continuous political stability, the same cannot be said of elsewhere. Where next for change and can Le Pen win the upcoming French presidential election, will be a key question. This means that investors should be mindful of the prospect of what might once have been termed, low probability high impact events. The interesting thing is that during 2016, political change - Brexit and Trump - did not have the economic or financial impact many wrongly predicted or feared.

It would not surprise me if one outcome from Davos is the remarkable good health of the world economy. That inevitably will prompt questions at Davos - and in the media coverage - of whether enough people are sharing in success, with, a focus on inequality. And while there may be genuine questions whether, because of high debt, it can continue - but for now the economic data looks good. More so, I can't imagine that in Davos too many of the global corporate leaders will want to say that their particular firm is not in good shape either. Yet one challenge for the world economy is that the animal spirits and desire to get things done all too evident among small firms, tech firms and entrepreneurs is often lacking among these corporate giants, whose firms are not investing enough.

Financial markets are rarely driven by what happens in Davos, but it can impact overall thinking. It may well be that the combined message out of Davos for the markets is: global growth is solid and economic policies need to be more popular. If so, it is likely to reinforce the message that has been underpinning financial markets since Trump'a election victory. Naturally there will be much focus on the consequences of his Presidency but it is difficult to imagine there will be anything new to add to current thinking.

Finally, there is Brexit. The Prime Minister, Theresa May, is going to Davos, and ahead of her speech there, she will also deliver an important speech in the UK on Tuesday. That always has the ability to impact Sterling, given recent market behaviour. But the reality is, greater clarity on the Government’s plans can only be a good thing for longer-term planning.

Overall, then, the message is, keep an eye on Davos. There is the potential for many different economic and political messages, the main one of which could be more positive sentiment about what lies ahead.

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