December 2nd, 2010
04:39 PM GMT
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Anyone who’s ever visited the Emerald Isle will confirm that humor always lies just beneath the surface.  Even in these tough times, with the “Celtic Tiger” reduced to the status of a bemused kitten trying hard to look cute beside a begging-bowl, the Irish can fall back on their love of irony and their taste for gallows humour.

So it’s hardly surprising that the following droll story is now hurtling round the email circuit at breakneck speed.  It’s actually quite hard to find the original source, but this particular yarn does seem to have been spinning around for at least a few weeks – before the Irish government was forced into a painful climb-down in the shape of a bailout deal with the EU and IMF.  In fact, I suspect it’s an older story which has been dug out, brushed off and tweaked to make it fit the current circumstances.

Whatever the source, the events of the past few days have sent this tale zooming round cyberspace all the faster, so much so that I received it from two quite separate sources on the same afternoon:

“It is a slow day in a damp little Irish town.  The rain is beating down and the streets are deserted. Times are tough, everybody is in debt, and everybody lives on credit.

“On this particular day a rich German tourist is driving through the town, stops at the local hotel and lays a €100 note on the desk, telling the hotel owner he wants to inspect the rooms upstairs in order to pick one to spend the night.

“The owner gives him some keys and, as soon as the visitor has walked upstairs, the hotelier grabs the €100 note and runs next door to pay his debt to the butcher. The butcher takes the €100 note and runs down the street to repay his debt to the pig farmer.

“The pig farmer takes the €100 note and heads off to pay his bill at the supplier of feed and fuel. The guy at the Farmers' Co-op takes the €100 note and runs to pay his drinks bill at the pub. The publican slips the money along to the local prostitute drinking at the bar, who has also been facing hard times and has had to offer him ‘services’ on credit.

“The hooker then rushes to the hotel and pays off her room bill to the hotel owner with the €100 note. The hotel proprietor then places the €100 note back on the counter so the rich traveller will not suspect anything.

“At that moment the traveller comes down the stairs, picks up the €100 note, states that the rooms are not satisfactory, pockets the money, and leaves town.

“No one produced anything. No one earned anything. However, the whole town is now out of debt and looking to the future with a lot more optimism.

“And that, Ladies and Gentlemen, is how the bailout package works.”

It’s a neat little story, but I have two problems with it.

First, nobody in it is actually in debt – not net debt, anyway. Their net balance sheet is zero. Take the butcher. He owes the pig farmer €100, but is owed the same amount by the hotel owner. And so on for all the Irish characters.

Second, I am not sure how appropriate it is to dwell on the underlying message of the story.  What does the story really tell us? For one thing, it reveals the way a bit of liquidity (the German's ready cash) oils the wheels of the economy.

That is a perfectly sensible thing to point out - normally.  But you don’t have to be a Ph.D. in economics to realise that pumping in too much cash will overheat the economy.  Too much liquidity will jack up demand and ultimately create a bubble.

Sound familiar?  Well, of course that is what happened in Ireland in the boom years: the housing sector floated high on oceans of liquidity, and then when someone pulled the plug the result was a bust, and a bunch of crippled banks.  The rest is Irish history.

So moral of the story, if you will, is actually a dangerous one – and certainly not the one the story-teller had in mind.  Mind you, if the rich German had had the presence of mind to demand an interest rate based on the average of 5.83 percent the Irish will have to pay for their bailout, the conclusions might be different.

But it’s still a good story – so why let dreary old economics spoil it?

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February 22nd, 2010
10:34 PM GMT
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More than four thousand Lufthansa pilots began a four-day strike on Monday, forcing the world’s second largest international airline to cancel 800 flights.

I spent the day at the German flag-carrier’s Frankfurt hub before witnessing the drafting of the agreement that secured a suspension of the strike.

The early morning show producer was pretty clear about what she wanted. “Off the top,” she emailed the team on the ground, “we want passenger chaos.”

Terminal 1 at Frankfurt Airport at 6:30 am on a dank, dark, damp Monday morning in February is probably nobody’s first choice. But it turned out to be the backdrop of the first of two major surprises in the course of the day: as my field producer Naomi McMullan and I stepped out of our taxi into the drizzle, what we saw was anything other than chaos.

Inside the building, people were to be seen, but only in moderate numbers – nothing out of the ordinary. Check-in clerks sat behind their counters, many idle, while Lufthansa officials circulated on the concourse offering help and advice to those few passengers who had shown up in hopes of taking one of the airline’s 1,800 daily flights.

The hushed calm, orderliness and decorum extended even to the ranks of television journalists and photographers deployed to Germany’s number one developing story: they had lined themselves up in a neat row opposite a bank of neglected electronic check-in stations, meekly awaiting news and interviews.

What we were witnessing was the outcome of some assiduous work behind the scenes by Lufthansa. Using email, SMS and even social networking, it had successfully communicated with the vast majority of those customers hoping to use its flights on Monday, getting across the messages about the strike’s impact, booking alternative flights or train journeys and even using direct messages on Twitter to reassure would-be passengers that any lingering concerns would be addressed.

There were exceptions. A 14-month-old boy can be an awkward travelling companion, as Valérie Dardignier was painfully reminded when she stepped off her overnight Lufthansa flight from Miami, expecting just a single short hop to Brussels, her final destination. But that connecting flight had gone the way of about 800 others, and Naomi found her trying to feed and look after her overtired and upset son while swearing she would never fly on Lufthansa again.

And then there was the couple originally booked on a flight to India. Their alternative flight booking would indeed get them there in the end – but take them to Bangkok, Thailand first.

By the middle of the day, things had settled into a pattern. The “passenger chaos” had not materialised, and some Lufthansa flight were leaving as normal. Terminal 1 was a busy place – but then it always is.

Then Lufthansa’s tall and dapper Corporate Communications Chief Klaus Walther appeared with the first real news for hours: the company was seeking an injunction against the pilots’ union on the grounds that its action was causing disproportionate damage and disruption.

Fast forward a few hours to a bland white-walled hearing room in the centre of Frankfurt, the headquarters of the local employment tribunal. Lawyers and representatives from the two sides shouldered their way to their desks past a heaving posse of journalists and photographers hanging on their words.

Right on time, a door opened and the panel filed in, headed by a youthful career judge, Dr Silke Kohlschitter. What happened over the next two hours had a great deal to do with her personality, legal precision and good humour - and her ability to cut through to the core of what divided the two sides and what could bring them together.

Those used to, say, British legal proceedings would have been astonished at the informality of the way Kohlschitter mediated between Lufthansa and the striking pilots’ union.

The detailed background, the arguments and the issues were not easy to follow, and proceedings were adjourned twice to allow the two sides to huddle and refer back to their colleagues back at headquarters. But in the end the presiding judge had cajoled Lufthansa and its pilots’ union into accepting an agreement which she had largely drafted for them in open court.

It was an impressive process: just two-and-a-half hours after the tribunal had convened, it had secured a fortnight’s suspension of the biggest strike in German aviation history. Pay talks will now resume as soon as practical – without preconditions.

It’s been a long day but the two surprises have taught me two lessons. First, the effective use of modern communications helped prevent what could have been an angry gathering of frustrated passengers at the airport. And second, anyone who might have been seduced into some stereotype of German judges as legalistic, inflexible and unimaginative had better think again.

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August 21st, 2009
05:02 PM GMT
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LONDON, England - Wherever you live, there’s always a local oddity or two: uniquely strange driving habits on the roads, maybe, or fast-selling products whose actual use is obscure. Here in England, it’s the strange phenomenon of the fiver famine.

The fiver, let me explain, is our smallest banknote, both in size and value: the five pound note. You would have thought they’d be common – not exactly two-a-penny, but fairly easy to find.

Er … no. The fiver is a rare bird which only occasionally flits across one’s path in its gray-green plumage, whereas its plumper companion, the £10 note or tenner, a classic brown job, flies out of cash dispensers with great regularity.

And here’s the second oddity: when your patience pays off and you do track the rare fiver bird down, it’s usually in a sorry bedraggled state.

People here were quick to embrace credit cards and then debit cards, and the old-fashioned cheque is still around in the background, no doubt still recovering from the excitement of its 350th birthday party earlier this year.

But the shortage of handy fivers is a nuisance for people who are forced to use a lot of cash, like market traders and taxi drivers. I’m not saying they’d change a tenner for a fiver just to make life more convenient, but they dislike having to give their customers a clunking great pile of our weighty little £1 coins rather than a handy banknote.

Talk to the Bank of England or the Payments Council, which monitors all kinds of payment on behalf of retailers, and they look in all directions and usher you into a private room before revealing a dirty secret about us Brits: we abuse our banknotes.

I’m serious. Those big denominations get treated with respect, of course: the average £50 notes can look forward to a decade of pampered life, lovingly tucked into fat wallets or squirreled carefully away in safes. By contrast, a tenner might last only a year or two, while the unfortunate fiver is treated as small change and handled accordingly: scrumpled up into a ball, stuffed into pockets next to bunches of keys, put through the washing machine, and generally viewed with scant respect.

So as fast as the Bank of England issues nice fresh notes, they’re soon transformed into limp dog-eared little rags that are simply not crisp enough to put through the machinery that counts banknotes. That means they have to be weeded out, and banks generally prefer to save themselves the trouble and cost involved.

That means fivers aren’t available from cash dispensers (with exceptions; I was intrigued to be issued with £5 notes when withdrawing money on a recent visit to Liverpool). Given that nearly two-thirds of the cash withdrawn in the UK comes out of those holes in the wall, the result is a shortage.

Just to tighten the vicious circle, retailers generally don’t even bother to bank the fivers they accumulate. So even if the banks could put them into cash dispensers, they’d be short of them anyway.

So while it’s tempting to think that this is all down to the recession here and our wanting to spend less and take out smaller denomination banknotes, it’s really all about printing more of the kind of money we like to use most.

Now the retail banks and the Bank of England are working together to address that. For a couple of months now they have been running a pilot centred on Central and Southwest England.

It’s too early to say whether this will mean more fivers everywhere; I personally fear a lot of banknote printing machines will burn out as the Bank of England tries to cope with the fiver famine and the need to pump cash into the financial system.

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Filed under: BusinessMoney

July 23rd, 2009
06:02 PM GMT
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For the past 12 years, some 50 of Europe’s top corporate leaders have been under special surveillance.

Wendelin Wiedeking's time at the head of Porsche has come to an end.
Wendelin Wiedeking's time at the head of Porsche has come to an end.

This has nothing to do with this week’s revelation that Frankfurt state prosecutors are deciding whether to bring criminal charges as they investigate allegations of illegal tactics by private detectives on contract to Deutsche Bank – though that mighty bank’s former CEO and Chairman, Rolf Breuer, is among the names being watched.

In 1997 and 1998 I was part of a CNN team that made some 50 programmes about individual company bosses in a series called “Pinnacle Europe.” We spent at least a day with each one, talking to them about how they’d got to the top, what they’d done for their companies, how they planned to stay ahead and what they did outside the office.

The series producer, Jeff Nathenson, and I still regularly exchange banter about what has happened to each of the CEOs we profiled; he maintains there is a “curse of Pinnacle” that gradually topples them, one by one. So we continue our casual surveillance of all 50 – by the boringly legal method of watching the headlines, I should add.

The fact is, though, that many are now ex-bosses. Many crashed and burned; they fell victim to boardroom knife attacks and are spending more time with their families. Some, like Jorma Ollila of Nokia, completed their distinguished careers and moved on to even higher things. Others sold their companies.

A handful have survived. Sir Richard Branson is still running Virgin in his unique way and is even wealthier than he was in 1997; Daniel Vasella is still atop the Swiss pharmaceuticals company Novartis; and Klaus Schwab is still head of the World Economic Forum.

But today one name did fall victim to Jeff Nathenson’s putative “curse of Pinnacle.” Germany woke up this morning to learn that one of its corporate titans, Wendelin Wiedeking, had been ousted as boss of Porsche, the role in which I had interviewed him for our CNN profile early in 1998, and which he had held for a very successful five years before that. With Wiedeking and his impressive collection of model cars evicted from the Porsche headquarters, talks are now underway to bring about a merger of the sports car maker and Volkswagen.

Dr Wiedeking had sought exactly the same thing, but in a different format. Having rescued Porsche from the weak dollar of the early 1990s (US sales are crucial to the company), he launched new models, shifted some production out of Germany and made the Stuttgart-based icon one of the jewels of its sector: prestigious and profitable.

Money piled up at the bank – and in the CEO’s personal wallet. His contract awarded him 0.9% of Porsche’s pre-tax earnings, a bonus reported at some 77 million euros in 2007-08. Confident in his ability to run any car company, even Europe’s largest, Wiedeking set his sights on a takeover of Volkswagen.

That proved his undoing. Like the Icarus of myth, this high-flier had ventured too close to the sun. True, Porsche amassed more than half of VW’s shares and had options on a further 20 percent. But it had also run up $14.2 billion in debt, and as the credit crunch bore down on big corporate borrowers, that burden crushed the life out of his ambitions.

Family politics also played a part. Porsche and Volkswagen have always been intertwined. Before World War II, Ferdinand Porsche designed the original Volkswagen or “People’s Car” – the evergreen Beetle. When the War was over he built his first Porsche model in a shed up an Austrian mountain, shifting production to Stuttgart when his sports cars started selling in big numbers.

Ferdinand Porsche’s descendants still control the company he founded – but one of his grandsons is the redoubtable Ferdinand Piëch, the Austrian former Volkswagen CEO, now its chairman. Wiedeking’s designs on VW split the extended family, and made an enemy of Piëch, a man not to be crossed.

History will shake its head at the ill-fated ambitions of Wendelin Wiedeking, while admiring the way he rescued Porsche, and that neat clause in his contract which rewarded him so handsomely for genuine, measurable success.

But why am I writing him off? He still has some interesting directorships – Novartis, for example. He has no need of money, even giving half his $70 million pay-off to charity, but driven people like that don’t just retire to the golf course. They waste no time in passing out their telephone numbers to the head-hunters.

There aren’t that many executives who can say they’ve rescued a major car company once before and left it wonderfully profitable, and these days those qualifications are badly needed. Like, who’s going to run Opel once it’s been sold off by GM?

February 1st, 2009
04:02 PM GMT
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DAVOS, Switzerland - Like all bosses, my editor likes to drop in the really irksome duties on top of those one has already willingly accepted, as if they were nothing to speak of. "Oh yes," she said nonchalantly, "you and Richard have to blog every day while you're in Davos, didn't I tell you?"

CNN's Nicki Goulding displays the work-related injury she received on the nose from her accreditation badge.
CNN's Nicki Goulding displays the work-related injury she received on the nose from her accreditation badge.

Keeping my grumbles to myself ("She expects me to get up at 5, work all day in the freezing cold and write some inane blog?"), I somehow manage to make my irritation look like mild surprise and decide to take the thing in good heart.

Little did I know that by the end of the week, I'd hardly be able to keep my hands off my trusty laptop and digital camera. As I prepare to return home, I have to be honest with myself about my new addiction: parties, hats, pedometers and daughters at Davos have been among the topics I've sounded off on this week.

Luckily for my readers there were also several items that never quite made it into blogdom.

There was going to be one about how Davos seems to produce more paper than ideas. Even before setting out, a huge consignment of documents from the World Economic Forum clunks onto my desk in London. Upon registration, participants are handed a handsome shoulder bag generously pre-packed with ring files, booklets and letters. And since it is impossible to attend every event at the Forum even if it is vitally important to you, progress around the Congress Centre is hampered by omnipresent racks full of press releases, transcripts of keynote speeches and other literature.

The crunch always comes at the end of the week. I have a large suitcase for trips like this, but it always ends up crammed full by the time I've put in all the warm clothing needed to handle broadcasting outdoors at 7 a.m. when the temperature is down to minus 16 degrees centigrade. Sticking in any extra stuff is not an option.

There was also going to be a blog about the mishaps that befell two of my colleagues here. I knew there was a lot of science, sociology and subterfuge associated with the different colored accreditation badges but never realized how downright dangerous they are.

The hazard resides in the piece of elastic you string round your neck, so the thing hangs at roughly the level of your third button down from the top. Security is very big here, and you frequently have to hold your accreditation up to electronic readers that verify your identity - for example, when entering the Congress Centre.

Last night CNN's Nicki Goulding did this a little carelessly, but with the elastic at full stretch the sharp-edged badge slipped from between her fingers, whizzed back and struck a vicious blow to the bridge of her nose.

Ouch. She appeared the next morning looking like she'd been in a fight.
The other unhappy incident concerned our Vicky Brown. She became the victim of abuse of monopoly power, proving that at the World Economic Forum, the microeconomics can be as bad as the macroeconomics.

Stepping into her taxi - ordered for 6:30 a.m. - at 6:32 a.m., she was subjected to a torrent of abuse in a language she does not understand. One thing the driver did make clear: She would have to pay more for keeping him waiting. Knowing that prices in Davos are systematically eased skywards when the World Economic Forum is in town, she stood her ground. More abuse, and the driver dropped her past the place she needed to be dropped, forcing her to walk back a couple of hundred yards.

The fact is, there aren't many taxis or taxi companies in Davos, and there is a lot of demand for them during the Forum. It's a seller's market, and first-year undergraduate microeconomic theory prepares you for such behavior. But it is still a pity to meet such a grouch in a country famed for its courtesy and hospitality.

Ho hum. Enough complaining. I'm off to work out a way of squeezing all those precious press releases into my poor old suitcase.

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Filed under: BusinessDavos

January 31st, 2009
11:26 AM GMT
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DAVOS, Switzerland - Luckily, not everybody here at the World Economic Forum fits the stereotype of the standard corporate "suit."

MIT Professor Robert Langer and daughter Susan.
MIT Professor Robert Langer and daughter Susan.

I have just bumped into a charming 18-year-old who must be just about the youngest person ever to wear the coveted white badge of the Forum.

For those not familiar with the ways of Davos, the white accreditation badge is only issued to full participants and their spouses, a category that stands nearly at the apex of the elaborate and rigid caste system that applies here.

If Susan Langer does not fit the corporate stereotype, she isn't exactly your average American high school senior, either. Not many teenagers anywhere have two scientific patents to their name. But then she does have a lot of parental encouragement: her father Robert is a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a world leader in the use of nanotechnology to treat cancer and regarded as one of the most brilliant minds in the biotech world.

It is as his "spouse" that Susan is here. But she is clearly far from being in awe of all these eminent and powerful people. "It's totally cool," she tells me, unfazed by my request for her take on Davos. "I got to meet the person who started YouTube, and I ran into Al Gore and got my photograph taken with him."

Ever the proud father, Robert fishes out his cellphone, leans across and shows me the shot of Susan with the former vice-president turned environmental campaigner.

So how did the idea of sneaking young Susan into Davos come about? "He got invited and I wanted to come," she explains simply, adding that she had accompanied him on two previous overseas trips.

It's not just about meeting celebrities, either. Susan Langer's longer-term ambitions also lie in the biotech field but economics is another subject she's interested in. She's taking advantage of exam leave to learn about it from the horse's mouth.

"It's been great," says her high-flying father, "People have been very nice, and I get to spend some time with my daughter."

Now I've heard of "Bring Your Daughter to Work Day", and I think it's a great idea. So why not "Bring Your Daughter to Davos"?

Mind you, if there is still a World Economic Forum in, say, 2020... I for one would bet that this accomplished and personable teenager will be here - this time with her very own white badge.

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January 28th, 2009
02:40 PM GMT
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DAVOS, Switzerland - The new Davos zeitgeist is everywhere. Even the technology is deleveraging.

Charles Hodson shows off his Davos pedometer.
Charles Hodson shows off his Davos pedometer.

Once upon a time, about a year ago, this was the place to learn about new gadgets. The iPaq passes as almost quaint these days but it was here that I for one first used one, linked in through a whizzy wireless network. A few years later I made friends with an iPod.

But this year a rather less exotic gadget was handed to me with my accreditation badge, forum program and briefing documents. Small, blue, plastic and emblazoned with the World Economic Forum logo, it was introduced as ... a pedometer.

It has a little display showing the number of steps taken since it was last reset and the idea is, you clip it onto your waistband, go about your business at Davos and then at the end of the week there's a prize for the person who has walked the farthest.

What better way of underlining the new austerity that now clings to Davos as tightly as its winter coating of thick snow! Had it not been for the absence of an airfield up here, we'd have been treated to opulent displays of executive jets in previous years; instead, though, the real movers and shakers swung in and out in noisy helicopters, while the merely influential slummed in it up the mountains in limos and luxury German sedans.

This year, I realise, it's what we Brits call "Shanks's pony" that is the vehicle of choice for the Davos glitterati: your own two feet. Even a lift in one of the courtesy World Economic Forum shuttle buses might undo any cred you might have had here.

The high-speed, high-spending, high-lending economy is dead. It's the good old-fashioned footslog that will get us all out of jail: no excessive cost, no impact on global warming and no undue risk - unless of course you fall victim to the many icy pavements.

To keep us all on our toes, the security officers have instituted a serious of pointless detours: entrances to the congress center that were open to all yesterday are now only for VIPs, and the rest of us are asked (with impeccable Swiss courtesy) to use another one several hundred yards away.

As one of life's great pedestrians, it all comes naturally to me, I must say. For the record, I have taken 9,918 steps since this time yesterday - and counting.

For more coverage of this year’s World Economic Forum, go to our special Davos page.

January 28th, 2009
06:25 AM GMT
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DAVOS, Switzerland - OK, OK, so Davos is known for its parties. And even in these hard times, a few social shindigs are bound to survive the blizzard of bad news that is blowing through the World Economic Forum.

Workers install chairs at the Davos Congress Center in advance of the opening of the World Economic Forum.
Workers install chairs at the Davos Congress Center in advance of the opening of the World Economic Forum.

There are, in fact, four parties written into the official program: the "welcome reception" as participants arrive on the Tuesday night, the "opening buffet" on the Wednesday, the lavish "cultural soiree" on the Saturday night and the "farewell buffet lunch" on the Sunday.

Even in 2009, all four are there in black and white. But on the basis of the first of them, those who come here for a break from the recession will be badly disappointed.

Even the space in which the first reception was held – in the plush Hotel Belvedere - tonight seemed somehow shrunken, if not misshapen. The proffered glass was modest, and the canapés (some of which I remembered as being so large and extravagant as to challenge one's dignity and good manners) positively normal in their dimensions.

As in previous years, CNN had asked permission to send in a camera to shoot some footage of participants enjoying their happy reunion. "No," came the polite reply, to our initial puzzlement.

Then the Swiss centime dropped. Davos is not about having a glass in one's hand any more. Parties are off-limits to our lenses; the WEF doubtless frets that such images sit badly with the image of an earnest and penitent gathering of business and political leaders, bent on finding The Way Out Of This.

Eager to relax after a long day but shamed into doing something more worthy, I take out my notepad, cross the hall and join what is billed as a cocktail party cum press briefing by a large consultancy firm.

CEOs, I learn, have never been so glum about their prospects, and expect any recovery to be protracted and hesitant. They are losing sleep at the thought of disruption to capital markets (the credit crunch, to you and me), over-regulation burgeoning energy costs and a lack of key talent. This clearly was never a party intended to go with a swing.

And why should it? Welcome to Davos in the recession. These truly are different times.

January 26th, 2009
04:25 PM GMT
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DAVOS, Switzerland – It's the contrasts that hit you when you come to Davos. All those mountains and snow, all that Swiss cleanliness - it all feels a long way from the gloom and mud of winter in the English countryside, which is where I was only 36 hours ago.But there are some other big contrasts, too. Even before the World Economic Forum begins, Davos 2009 feels a lot more than 12 months away from Davos 2008. Then, we thought we'd get away with a bit of a slowdown, and emerging economies like China would take over as the engines of global growth and save us from recession. Now, that recession is a reality, and today my inbox is clogged with internal CNN e-mails confirming tens of thousands of job losses: Home Depot, Deere, Sprint Nextel, Caterpillar and on and on and on.

A worker clears away snow ahead of the Davos 2009 forum.
A worker clears away snow ahead of the Davos 2009 forum.

So this year's Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum will be a rather more austere affair than its predecessors – even more sober than last year's. Old hands who've been here many times before agree that growth has given way to decline much faster than they ever expected. That has frankly awed participants into a more businesslike attitude towards their annual jolly to Switzerland.

Not that it looks that way if you go down to the kitchens of, say, the Arabella Sheraton in Davos. Amid the bustle of preparing for six days of non-stop catering, an assistant chef shows me storerooms full of gourmet supplies. My eye alights on one carton full of something pink and white and shrunk-wrapped: lobster, I ask? Nothing so mean, laughs my guide. Kamchatka crab legs, apparently, a Russian delicacy.

Oh yes, there will be quite some parties here, as every year. But some of the biggest names are canceling or cutting back. Goldman Sachs is reported to have nixed its bash for this year, and a lot of others are wary of being seen to live it up in the Swiss mountains while the world economy crumbles.

Nevertheless, the numbers of participants and hangers-on (like me) will be broadly similar to the turnout last year. For corporate leaders, there is a genuine reason for abandoning their desks and sneaking off to the mountains: we are in uncharted economic waters, and anyone who looks like they might know how to sail us back to growth will be seized on and pumped for ideas.

In Davos, dinners, drinks and deals usually win out over debates, deliberations and discussions. But in 2009 the boot will be on the other foot. With uncertainty clouding the global outlook, the networking will be about what was always originally intended: trading ideas. Trimmed of its excesses, and focused sharply on the economy, this time the World Economic Forum will be about listening.

For more coverage of this year’s World Economic Forum, go to our special Davos  page.

January 11th, 2009
06:51 AM GMT
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LONDON, England - What is it like being George W. Bush right now?  With Barack Obama's presidential inauguration just a few days away, how is the present occupant of the Oval Office spending his last few days in office?

The first seven years of the Bush administration witnessed strong economic gains.
The first seven years of the Bush administration witnessed strong economic gains.

Well, clearly there are the usual decisions to be taken, meetings to be held, visits to be made, people to be hosted and so on.  But it's my guess that there is a question that must echo ever more loudly in the mind of any outgoing president of the United States as he prepares to leave the White House: what will my legacy be?  And once Mr. Bush has packed his toothbrush and headed back to Texas, the minute-to-minute pressures of office will no longer distract him.  As he chews languidly on, say, a pretzel that question will no doubt pop unbidden into his mind.

History can be a fickle prism.  What journalists say today about George W. Bush's legacy may not be what the historians looking back from the 22nd century will see.  But for now it is clearly 9/11 and his response to it, above all the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, that will be held up as the defining issues of Mr. Bush's administration.

Millions of words will continue to be written about the rights and wrongs of his national security and foreign policy, which under the Constitution are the central concerns of the U.S. president.  But one of the pervading ironies of U.S. politics is the way that Americans ultimately vote for their president on the basis of economic achievement and promise.

So what of the Bush economic legacy? It certainly looks ugly.  On Friday last week we learned that the U.S. economy had shed 524,000 non-farm jobs in December 2008, bringing the total number of jobs lost in that lamentable year to 2.6 million. The day before, the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office put out a forecast that the federal deficit would balloon from $455bn in fiscal 2008 to $1.2 trillion, or more than 8 percent of GDP, in fiscal 2009.  That's before you factor in the huge additional fiscal stimulus that Mr. Obama will announce soon after taking office.

Breathtaking, especially when you remember that under the Clinton administration the federal budget moved into surplus, and even stayed there for the fiscal year of Mr. Bush's first inauguration in 2001.

But that was the last year he balanced the federal budget; then came the big tax cuts that were his economic signature, plus the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, thought likely to cost Washington a couple of trillion dollars (some economists say much more) by 2017.  (To put that into perspective, $2 trillion represents seven weeks' worth of the entire U.S. national output.)

But back to January 2009 and the recession that George W. Bush is handing on to Barack Obama. What triggered that, of course, was the implosion of the U.S. housing market in 2007.  It has battered tens of millions of ordinary Americans, exposed the reckless lending of many banks, shredded the balance sheets of many a proud name on Wall Street, triggered a bewildering global financial turmoil and forced a Republican President to swallow free market principles and mount a $700 billion programme of government bailouts.  

From this vantage point, the Bush legacy could hardly look worse.  But no actor would be judged solely on his last major performance; no sporting hero would stand or fall on the basis of how well he played in the last season before his retirement.

The fact is, the first seven years of the Bush Administration were years of strong GDP growth: before 2008, the slowest rate at which the U.S. economy grew was 3.2 percent in 2001 (during a cyclical downturn) and the fastest was 6.6 percent in 2004, with 2005 and 2006 not far behind that blistering rate.

There were some other strong points - at least until the cataclysm of 2007 and the perfect storm of collapsing house prices, shrinking economies and rising commodity values.  Under the stewardship of Alan Greenspan, the Fed kept inflation in check.  The Dow soared some 34 percent in the first six Bush years, peaking at 14,164 in October 2007.  Under a light regulatory regime the financial sector burgeoned.  U.S. businesses and consumers alike reaped huge rewards from the rollout of new technologies.  The Internet came of age.  Cheap consumer goods from China boosted the feel-good factor.  Cell phones and iPods became must-have accessories for most Americans; well into 2007, they could have been forgiven for thinking they had never had it so well.

But then came that terrible cataclysm, the steady slide into recession, a near-40 percent decline on the Dow from that heady peak and the brutality of unemployment for more than 7 percent of the U.S. workforce.

So the years of plenty ended in misery - there'd been plenty too much plenty, it turned out.  America had partied, and partied too hard; the present hangover is proving the most painful since the one that afflicted our grandfathers four score years ago.

But is the U.S. president to blame?  Will history look kindly on him, saying it was the blind greed of bankers that led them to lend more than humble borrowers could ever afford, and so trigger the housing crash?  Will George W. Bush be seen as the victim of powerful global forces that not even the most powerful elected official on Earth could foresee, let alone resist?

What do you think?  Will we remember the many boom years or just the bust?  Once the U.S. economy recovers, will Mr. Bush's economic legacy be seen in a more positive light?

Bob Parker of Credit Suisse Asset Management discusses your views

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