Sniping superpowers, Britain all at sea and the robots are coming: Five takeaways from Davos 2017

The World Economic Forum was, fittingly, global affairs in microcosm, as the UK rubbed nations the wrong way, China flexed its muscles and technological and climate change warnings struggled to be heard...

World Economic Forum, Enda Kenny, Ireland, recovery, WEF, Davos,

Image: Michele Limina/swiss-image.ch

Four days of the biggest players in the game trying to set the world to rights – or at least ensure their little part of it would come out on top – at a ski resort in central Europe has come to a close, and the main sounds coming from the speakers in the brightest of spotlights were of discord and uncertainty.

It seemed that this year in Davos, most of the experts didn't feel like staking what was left of their reputations on cocky crystal ball-gazing; unless their names were George Soros or Henry Kissinger, of course. A lesson learnt from a 12 months that has given Donald Trump the keys to the White House and seen the UK strike out solo.

So what hard-and-fast information can we glean from the chatter and soapboxing at this edition of the World Economic Forum (WEF)? Well, as Henry Kissinger opined at the death of today's proceedings, the world order you've gotten used to is quickly going away. And yet, that political and financial upheaval might pale into insignificance if we're not willing to tackle the challenges of climate change and robots making humans redundant in the workplace.

The key takeaways...

China is ready to replace America as the world's 'free trade' champion

There is little question that China as been paying heed to Donald Trumps' combative remarks about the business it has been doing of late since he was being dismissed as a joke candidate on the campaign trail and now his protectionist stance is about to become status quo in the highest office in Western democracy, the world's second biggest superpower is ready to seize its opportunity and move one place up the rankings.

Jack Ma, the founder of Chinese ecommerce behemoth Alibaba, tempered his jabs at how the US economy had stagnated due to big spending on wars and Wall Street by declaring its new leader to be a "great, great entrepreneur". At the same time,he was gently undermining the new administration and offering China up as suitable alternative in global leadership.

Chinese president Xi Jinping made the case for globalisation, presenting his country as a friendly and open economic force.

"We must remain committed to free trade and investment," he warned. "We must promote trade and investment liberalisation. No one will emerge as a winner in a trade war. The right thing to do is to seize every opportunity to jointly meet challenges and chart the right course for economic globalisation."

(...But Trump's US of A is ready for a good old-fashioned slobberknocker)

The US President's antagonist tweets prior to his inauguration set the tone for his future dealings with China (which he believes is using a climate change "myth" to make his nation's manufacturing non-competitive) and he's certainly surrouded himself with heavy business hitters that are ready to do battle. 

Following Xi's comments, his pick for commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross was quick to call him out for presenting an altogether distorted picture of China's trade policies. Ross, a billionaire banker who made €500m from a rescue investment in Bank of Ireland during the recession, addressed the Davos comments at a US Senate commerce committee meeting, saying:

"They talk much more about free trade than they actually practise. China is the most protectionist country of very large countries."

Britain's rubbing everyone up the wrong way

If they weren't quite walking into a hornet's nest, British PM Theresa May and her chancellor Philip Hammond would have expected a frosty reception at that is exactly what they got, as they outlined their rationale for Brexit being a good thing, tried to seem like something approaching a plan was being put in place and assured everybody that they still wanted to be friends.

May insisted in her speech that the Brexit vote was not about the UK looking inwards but rather building a "truly global Britain".

She said: "I want the UK to emerge from this period of change as a truly global Britain – the best friend and neighbour to our European partners, but a country that reaches beyond the borders of Europe too; a country that gets out into the world to build relationships with old friends and new allies alike. And that is exactly what we are going to do."

There were vocal allies, including Australia, but Hammond stuck a more isolationist note in his address.

He suggested that, while the UK's "strong preference is that we remain within the European economic mainstream... if we are driven out of that market, and denied access to our most important market, we will reinvent ourselves and find a new way of being competitive."

How successful would that be? George Soros, the Hungarian-American speculator who was once labelled 'The Man Who Broke the Bank of England', reckoned that "the people in the UK are in denial" and that Brexit could end up lasting a mere three days.

Earth has never seen such inequality

We didn't need telling that a fraction of the 1% are calling the shots, but the stark figures on how the world's wealth is distributed served to put an important asterisk on all of the other discussions. 

Let's state it again:

Eight men control the same wealth as the 3.6 billion people who represent the poorer half of the world’s population. That was according to a new Oxfam report published to tie in with Davos. It accuses governments of allowing corporations and the "super-rich" to avoid tax and to "use their power to influence politics".

Jim Clarken, chief executive of Oxfam Ireland, said:

"It is obscene for so much wealth to be held in the hands of just eight men – so few they would fit on a golf buggy – when one in nine people on this planet go to bed hungry every night. Public anger is already creating political shockwaves across the globe with inequality cited as a significant factor in the election of Donald Trump in the US and Brexit in the UK.

"People are tired of a system which seems rigged against them, where big business and the super-rich use their money and connections to ensure government policy works for them."

There are a number of threats coming down the tracks

Forget free trade and globalisation – the CEOs in Davos were making it clear that automation is the real reason so many people are losing their jobs.

As Meg Whitman, chief executive of Hewlett Packard, told Reuters:

"Jobs will be lost, jobs will evolve and this revolution is going to be ageless, it's going to be classless and it's going to affect everyone."

"Technology is the big issue and we don't acknowledge that," Mark Weinberger, chairman of consultancy EY, also remarked. 

Meanwhile Microsoft's Satya Nadella was advising the news organisation:

"I think what we're reaching now is a time when we may have to find alternative careers through our lifetime."

And if AI doesn't leave us out of pocket, nature might just sweep us away.

The issue of climate change was handled in a very un-Trumpian manner at WEF, with Al Gore saying on day two:

"On the first question, must we change, most people in the world are now convinced; but we are reminded by some recent elections and appointments that not everyone is there."

An exhibition highlighting climate change, "from rampant emissions to rising sea levels", had been constructed in the WEF congress centre, while 15 sessions were dedicated to climate change and nine more to clean energy – the highest ever number on the issues.

Room to be cheerful amidst doom and gloom

While Joe Biden was making the case that the 1% was not pulling its wait, there was some corporate activity outlined that will undoubtedly bring benefits.

A coalition of governments, philanthropists and business is pledging to put money and effort into making vaccines to stop the spread of diseases that could threaten mankind – and to prevent another outbreak as devastating as the Ebola epidemic.

The German, Norwegian and Japanese governments joined the Wellcome Trust and the Gates Foundation in announcing that they were investing $460 million into a vaccine initiative aimed at preventing global epidemics. That's half of what is needed for the first five years of the programmed, with the Lass, Mers and Nipah diseases named as the first three to be targeted.

The world's biggest drugmakers also agreed to collaborate to improve the treatment of cancer and other non-infectious diseases in poor countries.

Twenty two major drug players, including Pfizer, Eli Lilly, Roche, Sanofi, GlaxoSmithKline and Johnson & Johnson, made the pledge to bring positive change to the pricing and accessibility of care provided for these illnesses, which account for over 80% of deaths in the poorest parts of the world, at the World Economic Forum in Davos. 

They will work in combination with the World Bank and the Union for International Cancer Control, according to FT.

Some $50m will go towards the establishment of a secretariat to being work on the ground, though most of the focus will be on building upon the companies' existing commercial presence in these nations. This 'Access Accelerated' initiative aims to improve both treatment and prevention.