With U.S. divided, China struggling, government and business leaders fret about power vacuum



A polarized U.S. presidential race; question marks over China’s economic management; and a once-dominant German chancellor suddenly under threat.

Those were the flash points that dominated last week’s annual gathering of the World Economic Forum as executives, investors and policy makers fretted about the lack of leadership in a world beset by multiple crises. With the global economy already slowing and financial markets whipsawing, the risk is that an otherwise manageable set of challenges could cascade out of control without a firmer hand from governments.

“There are too many moving parts, jittery parts, and those parts don’t seem to talk particularly well with each other,” Ton Buechner, the chief executive officer of Dutch industrial group AkzoNobel NV, said in an interview in Davos. “There’s just a high number of simultaneous concerns taking place.”

The week began with WEF founder Klaus Schwab warning that the slump in commodities could multiply the number of refugees seeking asylum in Europe. It ended with Salesforce.com Inc. CEO Marc Benioff lamenting “a leadership crisis” in the face of rapid technological innovations that may worsen the economic prospects of the middle class.

“We need stronger leaders who are able to give us a stronger vision for where we are going,” Benioff said.

China topped many attendees’ list of concerns. The world’s second-largest economy is slowing as it rebalances from investment and exports to consumption and services, undermining demand for oil and a host of other commodities. Difficulty propping up the yuan and a botched effort to do the same for stocks have fanned criticism the government is losing control of its economy.

Also to be navigated: the U.S. Federal Reserve’s long- awaited shift from the near-zero interest rates that have fueled the world economy since 2008, recessions in once-booming emerging economies like Russia and Brazil, and still-anemic growth in Europe. Underscoring the scale of the challenge, the International Monetary Fund last week cut its 2016 global growth forecast for the third time in less than a year, to 3.4 percent from 3.6 percent in October.

“These are the shifting tectonics of the global economy,” said U.K. Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne. “These shifts create tremors. The question is how large will these tremors be.”

The worry for those in Davos was that the tremors could intensify without stronger leadership from governments. That, in turn, could roil national politics even further. When economies suffer, “leaders get desperate for ways to rally or distract their citizens,” said Bill Browder, the founder of hedge fund Hermitage Capital.

Such a populist push is already underway in the U.S., where President Barack Obama is increasingly a lame duck ahead of November’s election. Property magnate Donald Trump is topping the Republican polls, while self-declared socialist Bernie Sanders gains ground on establishment favorite Hillary Clinton in the Democratic field.

No matter who wins the White House, business people “aren’t particularly optimistic” he or she will break a deadlock in government, said Cathy Engelbert, the CEO of consulting firm Deloitte LLP.

Europe was also a focus of anxiety as pillars of the region’s post-World War II start to wobble. The U.K. is nearing a referendum on its membership in the European Union that pollsters believe will be close. Prime Minister David Cameron is yet to declare an official position on the vote, even as executives from companies like Siemens AG and BAE PLC have urged Britain to stay put.

Meanwhile, European leaders “have just a few weeks to deliver” solutions to the unprecedented flow of refugees from the Middle East as warmer weather makes travel conditions easier for migrants and refugees, French Economy Minister Emmanuel Macron said last week.

The crisis has grown so severe as to prompt speculation that German Chancellor Angela Merkel could be forced from office unless she changes tack on her open-door policy.

“The European Union is in an existential crisis” because of migration pressures, billionaire investor George Soros said. “It’s falling apart. And that’s a time when you need to have a major initiative, a Marshall Plan.”

Europe’s refugee crisis won’t fully end until violence subsides in the Middle East — an increasingly dim prospect as Saudi Arabia and Iran vie for dominance in the region and world powers struggle to come up with a unified position on how to deal with President Bashar Assad. The number of refugees entering Europe in January is already eclipsing last year’s pace, with arrivals in the first 10 days of 2016 three times those seen in all of January 2015.

“The big worry from the point of view of geopolitics remains not just the Middle East but the Middle East, North Africa and Southeast Asia, where sectarian conflict risks destabilizing more states,” said Niall Ferguson, a historian at Harvard University.

The upshot is that Davos delegates will this week return to their offices bracing for more turmoil across geopolitics and markets.

“I hope there is a disconnect between markets and the economy, as there often can be,” said Vittorio Grilli, a JPMorgan Chase & Co. executive and a former Italian finance minister. “But there are too many unprecedented factors for anyone to say with certainty.”