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Conversations in Davos this year revolve around “Mastering the Fourth Industrial Revolution.” Photograph by JOHANNES EISELE

Business Leaders at Davos Say 2016 Could Deliver More Layoffs

Jan 22, 2016

The view from up in the Alps is that things could get tougher for American workers in 2016.

That's what business leaders and consultants attending the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland say. In general, the mood of attendees at the global confab of CEOs, politicians, and regulators has been more positive than the market might suggest. A number of business leaders describe the mood as "grey," but not black.

Kenneth Rogoff, a Harvard economist famous for worrying about debt, said that a recession was "not very likely." He put the chances at 20%. At the same time, he said people are "very nervous about the short-term." Earlier in the week, the perennially pessimistic economist Nouriel Roubini speaking on a panel said that he didn't think China was headed for a hard landing, but a bumpy one. In general, he said, markets overreact, and he thought that was what was happening now.

Still, there are hints that the broad job gains of the past few years could be slowing. Catherine Engelbert, who is the CEO of auditing and consulting firm Deliotte LLP, says she expects an increasing number of companies to announce layoffs in the next year. The primary reason, Engelbert says, is not the economy, but technology and cost pressures. She says companies are transforming their businesses through technology, and they plan to continue along that path. Artificial intelligence is making it easier to automate tasks, she admits, even in the auditing business. "We now have a software tool that can read thousands of contracts in minutes to assess risk," says Engelbert.

And she says after spending a few years ringing costs out of a number of other parts of their businesses, many companies will turn to their staffing budgets.

For a long time, the general assumption was that retiring baby boomers would create additional demand for workers in the U.S. That argument seems to have fizzled. In fact, one of the main themes of this year's World Economic Forum is how technology could shrink the workforce, cutting as many as 5 million jobs worldwide in the next few years.

Gary Cohn, the chief operating officer of Goldman Sachs, says that many of the companies he works with are looking to "optimize" their workforce. He says that will result in the redistribution of more U.S. employees to lower cost areas, like Bangladesh, India, or Warsaw.

While some think job cuts are on the way, they don't see it yet. Gary Pinkus, who leads McKinsey's North American practice, says he hasn't seen clients in a "retrenching mode." Nonetheless, he says, "Everyone is trying to tighten their productivity."

Dan Glaser, who is the CEO of insurance and employment consulting firm Marsh & McLennan, says that the drop in the stock and oil markets has darkened the business climate a bit. "For everyone outside of the oil industry, the drop in prices should be a positive, but it's not being treated that way."

He says he doesn't think companies have shifted into layoff mode, but it's something he's looking out for. With that said, few economists think a recession is in the offing. If the buzzword of 2016 becomes "optimize," though, the year could turn out worse than many predict.

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