The bloviating, partying, and high-minded panel-discussing that is the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, is just getting underway this week. Which prompts the question: What's really important this year?
To answer this, I called my favorite Davos Man, Ian Bremmer, just before he hopped on an airplane to Europe. He gave me his preview of what he’ll be discussing in his public and private meetings during the week. (The swells who attend WEF actually refer to their one-on-ones in Davos as “bilaterals.”)
If you're unfamiliar with him, Bremmer, 44, runs the political-risk consultancy Eurasia Group, based in New York. A political scientist by education, Bremmer wrote his doctoral dissertation at Stanford University on the impact of the imploding Soviet Union on the Russian Diaspora who would suddenly be expatriated from the Motherland. (He concluded that, for the most part, Russians had made themselves at home far from Russian soil and would do just fine under new regimes.) His firm, which he started in 1998, consults with large multinational companies, financial institutions, and governments which, he says, “observe the rule of law.” He aims to provide “unvarnished analytical information and research,” he told me. “I wouldn’t want to be in a position to write something about clients that isn’t accurate.”
On a daily basis, Bremmer is in a position to offer opinions and analysis about just about anywhere in the world. I asked him to tell me his three hot-button issues heading into Davos. Overachiever that he is, he gave me four. (He also appeared last week with celebrity economist Nouriel Roubini in a session moderated by Rana Foroohar of Time magazine.) Notably, Bremmer believes the most pressing concerns at Davos this year will for the most part not be economic, which stands in contrast to recent years where subjects such as the eurozone crisis, U.S. fiscal embarrassments, and a feared China hard landing have preoccupied decision-makers and opinion-mongers in Davos.
Bremmer’s hot list, below.
Bremmer observes that the Chinese political leadership under President Xi Jinping is “more engaged in substantial reform than we’ve seen in 20 years.” At the top of their list: corruption, financial-sector reform, a free-trade zone in Shanghai, and making state-owned enterprises more transparent to government leaders. “All of those things are really overdue,” Bremmer says. “But they will create losers. The reason they haven’t done anti-corruption before is that it will piss a lot of people off.” For example, cleaning up China’s massive shadow banking system will cut off a lot of credit, no small factor for economic and political stability in China. “This is why Xi has created a lot of power around his own person,” Bremmer says. “He has an understanding that this stuff is not easy, and that his actions will create a backlash.”
The reforms may well create an opportunity for Western companies. “Some will see that as state-owned enterprises are squeezed for capital they’re going to be interested in working more with large multinational corporations,” Bremmer says. “In this regard, U.S.-Chinese relations will improve. China wants more stability given all that is going on internally. At the same time, I don’t think we’ll see improvements in intellectual property and other cybertheft emanating from China.”
Renewed emphasis on U.S. foreign policy
Bremmer notes that the non-issue of 2014 -- the U.S. economy -- boosts the significance of US. foreign policy. With the conventional wisdom that the U.S. economy is not in decline, a major concern at past WEF gatherings, and with President Obama not burdened by budget showdowns and other crises over the domestic economy, his second-term team can focus again on matters abroad. Unfortunately, Bremmer doesn’t see things going very well for the U.S., especially given that many of its allies are having a more difficult time with their own foreign policies. “Britain, Japan, and Israel have no choice” but to follow the U.S., he says. Ditto Mexico and Canada. “Everyone else is hedging. That creates problems for multinationals.” For example, U.S.-based companies increasingly are being asked to prove they are not working with the National Security Agency.
As well, Bremmer isn’t particularly high on the U.S. Secretary of State. “John Kerry is a smart guy,” says Bremmer. “He’s capable. But he wasn’t Obama’s first choice. He doesn’t have the access to the President that Hillary did. He got his legs cut out on Syria. He doesn’t know Asia well.” Bremmer thinks Kerry does have a shot at completing an Iran deal; he is less optimistic about Kerry’s chances brokering an agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians.
Developing countries have, in Bremmer’s view, a success problem. “As these places get wealthier their people demand more,” he says. Citizens in Turkey, Brazil, and Thailand, for example, want accountable governance. “In that environment, political capital for leaders is hard to come by. The domestic environment is more challenging,” and along comes an international problem: “With the U.S. coming out of recession and easing its monetary support, capital is harder to come by.” This has hurt capital markets in developing countries, which creates domestic concerns. Bremmer’s run-down of emerging markets to watch? Columbia and Mexico (“the next developed nation, which is great”) are in good shape. Brazil and Indonesia look reasonably good. “Turkey looks horrible. India looks bad. Argentina and Venezuela are disasters. Russia looks bad.”
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Energy abundance, etc.
On that happy note, Bremmer turns his attention to a grab bag of other issues, including the ramifications of a potential oil glut. “Lots more production from the U.S. and Libya, plus Iraq in a low-growth environment mean prices go down. And then they go down again if an Iran deal happens. This is really problematic for petro states that haven’t engaged in diversification and economic reforms." On the list of countries to be concerned about: Nigeria, Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, and Russia.
Bremmer concludes by noting that though we’re not fretting over the U.S. economy or Europe this year, it’s not as if everything is hunky-dory either. “It’s a benign environment for the U.S. going forward. But Obama is unpopular. There is no upside for legislative gains. No free trade agreement, no immigration bill. No minimum wage hike. The gap between rich and poor is not moving. It’s a true issue.” He’s not particularly upbeat about Europe, which is “just not an exciting topic this year. It’s a hard slog. There’s less concern about the eurozone collapsing, but there is no reason to do business there.”
But there’s one good place for Ian Bremmer to do business in Europe, at least this week: Davos, of course.