With 2,500 participants, the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland has no shortage of opinions on the state of the world and where it's heading in 2014. Here are some that stood out after the forum wrapped up this weekend.
Happy economic days are here again
The global economy looks better than at any time since 2007. Davos veterans said it's the first time since the financial crisis that they have not been actively using the word "crisis." Europe is scarcely a topic of conversation. Asia has slowed only modestly. The big star? U.S. growth projections are at 3 per cent, with some talking of 4 per cent by year's end. American consumers are back. The federal deficit is declining. An energy boom, based on shale gas, is not only driving employment growth, it's made American manufacturers competitive again. A caveat from some veterans: With this much consensus, it may be time to short the market.
Fear China's shadow banks
If there's a single big worry for the short term, it's China's shadow banks. Beijing last year squeezed bank credit as a way to manage down economic growth, and avoid both inflation and greater formal credit risks. An unintended consequence: a surge in shadow banking, ranging from private lenders to companies creating their own credit arms to finance sales. No one is sure how much debt is sitting in these Chinese operations, or how risky they are, or how exposed other lenders are to them. For the doomsayers, it raises fears of another chain reaction like the collapse of Lehman Brothers.
If there's a single big worry for the long term, it's disruptive technology eating jobs and entire countries' ability to generate wealth. Globally, productivity is about half what it was before the financial crisis. Even China is jittery, fearing its iPhone factories can't compete with Korean robots. Small wonder governments and businesses are looking to creative productivity – not the kind that replaces people with machines, but the kind that develops a workforce that can use machines to create more jobs. When China is talking about the need for a creative class, you know something's up.
Big Data is the new bad boy
It was compared in one session to teenaged sex: everyone thinks about it, and everyone thinks it's more dangerous than it is. Expect Mommy and Daddy to intervene from Washington. More U.S. intervention, if not more regulation, could be on the horizon for digital media, banks, phone companies, retailers and anyone else who asks you for information. One risk: Clever operators will move to less regulated countries. And one fear: The Internet will become more nationalized, thus losing the authenticity of a World Wide Web.
America is missed
Syria, Iran, Ukraine, South China Sea: There are plenty of hotspots where a lot of people seem to be missing a more interventionist United States. Much of the world has woken up to the fact that when Washington is not there, Moscow, Beijing or Tehran will be. Sure, it's nice to have the United Nations, but the message seems to be: Please send John Kerry, too.
Is climate change MIA?
There was no shortage of debate about global warming; just not many ideas about what's being done. On the eve of the conference, Europe seemed to step back from its long push for reductions in global carbon emissions, opening the door for more coal use. China, meanwhile, is shifting to gas. And the United States is producing so much of everything that the biggest issue is how to open the door to exports.
Med-tech is the new killer app
If we're in the early days of the mobile revolution, one of the next waves to hit consumers will be wearable medical sensors and devices. Think of a bracelet that can tell you (and your doctor) about sleep patterns, stress levels and hourly physical activity. Techies are excited, doctors concerned, governments perplexed.
Facebook trumps Fortune
Yes, the gender debate is real. Silicon Valley's Sheryl Sandberg urged a crowd that seemed more Fortune 500 than Facebook to look at every organization's reasons for falling short in gender equity. "Things have changed but they haven't changed enough," she said. "We can't stop short of 50 per cent." She and others cited some elementary issues – from work hours to workplace tone to the celebration of individuals – for women leaving or staying away from management. In Japan, where there is a government-led effort to increase the number of women in leadership positions, Mitsubishi Motors Corp. has mandated that no meeting last longer than an hour, as mothers felt they were losing precious time listening to men. Also on the table: everyone leaving head office by 7 p.m. No exceptions.
Work stress is real, and it's gone global. When you hear workplace stress is a problem for the Indian conglomerate Mahindra & Mahindra Ltd., you get the picture. Lots of organizations are trying lots of things to ease the deluge and help their employees focus (and breathe): email-free weekends, office napping and meditation. It's not just about stress, but generating economic creativity. (See #3.) In organizational behaviour circles, there is a worry that our electronic lives, and particularly the incessant gunfire of email, are creating a workforce known for "continuous partial attention."