Davos forum kicks off with dour mood amid tough global conditions


Staff Writer

The mood was glum as the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting of academics and leaders from business and politics kicked off Wednesday in Davos, Switzerland, with worries ranging from energy to geopolitics and China’s slowdown causing widespread unease.

Problems such as the refugee crisis in Europe, the ultralow oil price and the challenges of new technology have overshadowed the global economic outlook this year, a tone that is reflected in this summit so far.

The four-day meeting in the resort town drew more than 2,500 representatives from business, politics, academia and NGOs from more than 100 countries.

In an annual survey of CEOs released at the conference by PricewaterhouseCoopers, 66 percent of participants said their businesses face more threats today than three years ago, while only 27 percent believe global growth will improve this year, down 10 percentage points from last year.

The survey was based on interviews with 1,409 CEOs in more than 83 countries.

After regulatory matters, geopolitics was the “number two concern expressed by CEOs today, whether it’s the Middle East or in other parts of the world,” said Dennis Nally, PwC’s chairman. “You’ve got hot spots everywhere in the world, and it creates instability.”

This year’s theme is “mastering the fourth industrial revolution,” a reference to the ongoing transformation of society and economics driven by advances in artificial intelligence and robotics.

Some participants expressed concerns for how this will change people’s lives and what impact it will have on the global economy.

“Tens of thousands will be out of jobs” in the wake of this tech-driven revolution, said U.S. Vice President Joe Biden.

To survive, governments and companies must work hard to increase access to education and invest in workers through job training, Biden said.

The fourth industrial revolution “has the potential to further hollow out the middle class,” he said. “It’s our responsibility to bend these changes to the benefit of society — to make sure that the digital revolution creates more winners than losers.”

A report released by UBS at the meeting said that while developed economies will likely benefit from automation and the use of artificial intelligence, developing countries will suffer as having an abundance of low-skilled workers, as they do, will no longer be an advantage.

Among countries that stand to benefit most from this revolution are Switzerland and Singapore, according to the report.

The scenario could pose an interesting test case for Japan, said Mark Haefele, chief investment officer of UBS. Japan is “a highly industrialized society, a leader in robotics, a leader in using energy more efficiently in many ways, yet is also resistant to some of the changes and adaptability,” he said.

He added, the nation needs to have more flexibility in many fields, such as its labor market.

Low- and semi-skilled jobs will be increasingly under threat of replacement, and the high levels of connectivity that come with advanced technology will pose heightened challenges to cybersecurity, the report said.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and British Prime Minister David Cameron are among 300 public figures participating in the meeting. From Japan, Akira Amari, minister for economic revitalization, health minister Yasuhisa Shiozaki, Taro Kono, state minister for regulatory reform, and Fukushima Gov. Masao Uchibori are expected to take part.