BUSINESS CLASS: Davos days

This week our travels take us to the Swiss Alps, where the serious business of changing the world is well underway at the World Economic Forum.

It's that time of the year again, when the great economic minds of the world get together with the politicians, the capitalists, the philanthropists and various other rich and famous types at a ski resort in Switzerland, to talk about it all. And let's face it, there's a bit to discuss this year. So without further ado, here's a look at what's being said about what's being said at the World Economic Forum 2010.

Where is the love?

That's the main thing we're hearing from the chalets and conference centres of Davos this year. "Everybody’s pissed off at everybody," says DealBreaker's Yal Bizouati. (See, Greece, it's not just you!) "It’s not the love fest it used to be. Not even humanity-lover Bono is showing up this year."

No Bono?! Thank heavens George Soros turned up, 'cos it's not Davos without Soros, and it's not Soros without predictions of impending doom. And according to The Washington Post's David Ignatius, this year the bleak ol' billionaire investor has outdone himself. Indeed, to call his speech gloomy just wouldn't "do justice to the level of weltschmerz."

Soros, it seems, has lost all faith in capitalism, describing it as broken and condemned to create endless bubbles. "Bubbles are inherent in financial markets," said Soros, adding that "the system doesn’t tend toward balance but imbalance." And he doesn't jive with regulation, either, the flaws of which he described as "even worse" than the markets'. Even Obama's banking reforms haven't cheered him up. He likes the idea of them, per se, but not the timing. Too soon, Barack. Too soon.

And Soros wasn't the only one reading old-school capitalism its last rites. French president Nicolas Sarkozy has had enough, too: "Over the last few years, everything has been given to financial capitalism, and nothing has gone to labour," he told the forum. "All that mattered was the present – the future counted for nothing. Companies took higher profits, yet inequity continued to grow. Capitalism is not an end – it should be a means to an end... If we don't reform the system, we'll be taking unforgivable risks in the future."

And while he was in the mood, says Newsweek's Rana Foroohar, Sarkozy had un petit truc for the Davos Man. "A few years ago, [corporate leaders] told us that we were seeing the end of nations and the beginning of an era of global nomads. Yet when the boat was rocked last year, all those companies, no matter how global, remembered quite well which countries they came from."

Joining Soros and Sarkozy in camp glum is, somewhat predictably, Nouriel Roubini, who gained his A-List party status and "Dr Doom" moniker by predicting the GFC (over and over again). Roubini used his moment at Davos to warn governments to expedite "the process of trimming deficits and cutting debt or risk an eventual rise in interest rates that could crowd out investment," reports Bloomberg. He also said he was "bearish" on the world economic outlook, fearing a "return to business as usual," including "obscene" banker remuneration.

Did somebody say banker?

Well, a lot of people did, actually, with a good deal of discussion in Davos revolving around reining in the cowboys of the wild West's financial system. "The conversation among business and government leaders at the World Economic Forum no longer revolves around whether to regulate the banking industry more sharply, but rather how to do so," says Jack Ewing in The New York Times.

But not everyone thinks regulation is the way. Barclays Capital president Bob Diamond, for one, is not convinced. And, might he mention, that his bank didn't need bailing out. "I think that what goes unnoticed is that the banks which stayed strong and were well managed through this are angry at the banks (that) had poor management (and) were allowed to have poor management and ineffective regulations," Diamond told the Davos crowd.

But beyond defending his honour, Diamond raises a point that is already worrying American regulators, says The Telegraph's Jeremy Warner; "that it is actually extremely difficult to define precisely what proprietary trading is, or to distinguish it from client-based trading, which is presumably still going to be allowed under the Volcker rules." Take the Treasury debt market in the US, says Warner. "There’s around $US8 trillion of the stuff slopping around the world, a half of which is going to have to be refinanced over the next 18 months."

And if that doesn't convince you that regulation is a bad idea, says Warner, perhaps Lloyd’s of London chairman Lord Levene will. "When the Americans enacted Sarbanes-Oxley in response to the Enron crisis, he seriously thought about having a statue erected in the City in honour of the legislation owing to the amount of business New York lost to London as a result." And when chairman of the US Congressional Financial Services Committee, Barney Frank, accused Levene of being opposed to regulation to the extent that he would abolish traffic lights, Levene's "witty riposte", says Warner, was that it’s not traffic lights he disapproves of, per se, just "the ones that stay red for 55 seconds and then only allow 5 seconds of green."

David Rubenstein of the Carlyle Group has also been forthcoming with reasons why "we shouldn't hold our breath for a bunch of nations getting together to pass the same laws in order to prevent regulatory arbitrage," says Barbara Kiviat in Time: "'At the World Economic Forum,' said Rubenstein, 'you should always say, yes, multilateralism is possible and we should come together. But getting national solutions is difficult enough.'"

Depressing? Probably, but the mood hasn't been all doom and gloom. Au contraire, says The Guardian's Larry Elliott, "the mood in Davos is more cheerful this year." But that's not necessarily because things are looking good. More that they're not looking as bad as they were a year ago, when "the world economy was having a near-death experience."

The key for Davos Man this week, says Elliott, is to put meat on the bones of the forum's slogan, "rethink, redesign, rebuild", and thusly avoid round two of the crisis.

So how are we looking, going forward?

According to Raghuram Rajan, finance professor at the University of Chicago and former chief economist at the International Monetary Fund, the world economy has "moved from a period of great economic uncertainty to significant political uncertainty," reports MarketWatch. He also warned that 10 per cent unemployment in the US and euro zone and 10 per cent growth in China could trigger populist political responses as well as more protectionism.

But Carlyle's Rubenstein is more optimistic, telling the forum that now is a "pretty attractive" time to invest, with "a lot of great opportunities" in the US and "abroad", and musing that "sometimes generals fight the last war, economists fight the last recession."

And no need to worry about China, by the way. It's well aware that the world is at a "new historical juncture" and is prepared to share the load, according to "possible future leader" Vice Premier Li Keqiang. Speaking at the forum, Li said "China's market of more than one billion people would open up gradually in the coming years, with monopolies broken up and competition encouraged, benefiting the whole world." Long breath out.

Just on China, The Tele's Warner wonders if it isn't a sign o' the times that "the grand chalet opposite the main conference centre for the World Economic Forum ...which for years has habitually been occupied for the annual meeting by Microsoft has this year been taken over by CCTV, the main Chinese TV network, all decked out in red in the manner of the Chinese flag." Or maybe the Microsoft crew just decided to stay in a youth hostel instead? After all, their tweeting, blogging Messiah, Bill Gates, has been getting in touch with the youth lately.

And in other 'that's good news, isn't it?' news, the word from big oil at Davos is that "new reserves of natural gas found in shale rock are a 'big deal' and a 'game changer'." That is, a big deal for Australia and the US, and a game changer for Russia.

What's to come?

Heading into the weekend, we can look forward to discussions about that other biggest-threat-facing-the-world-today, climate change. Oh, and the other, other biggest threat, the millions of stolen passports and other personal identification documents that Interpol says could be used by terrorists or criminals to travel worldwide. Uplifting stuff. If it all gets too much, may we suggest you keep an eye out for news of Oleg Deripaska's Davos bash. The Russian tycoon and aluminium survivor has bought his own chalet for the occasion, reports The Independent, "having decided that the party he held last year, at Nat Rothschild's place in down-the-road Klosters, was a bit of a pain for everyone to get to." Rothschild will be there, Bill Clinton might be, and we're betting our friend Nouriel Roubini wouldn't miss it for the world. And if that doesn't cheer you up, try this.