February 20, 2017, 4:43 pm
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AFTER YEAR OF UPHEAVAL: Polarized societies fuel risks at Davos

LONDON- Divided societies, rising populism and fears for the world’s climate top the list of risks facing politicians, central bankers and business leaders gathering in Davos next week.

The world has changed dramatically in the year since they last met in the Swiss Alps, with Donald Trump’s election in the United States and Britain’s vote to leave the European Union exposing deep public disenchantment with globalization.

“Davos Man” - those who meet each year at the World Economic Forum (WEF) - faces further threats in 2017 too, with elections in the Netherlands, France, Germany and probably Italy all offering scope for an anti-establishment backlash.

Ahead of its annual meeting, the WEF’s 2017 Global Risks report on Wednesday highlighted rising income and wealth disparity as the trend most likely to determine global developments over the next decade.

While the world economy is expected to carry on growing this year - helped by anticipated U.S. tax cuts and infrastructure spending under a Trump administration - the threat of protectionism presents a rising long-term risk.

Other dangers have not gone away, with climate concerns moving up the agenda as Trump’s arrival as President in the White House casts a shadow over curbing carbon emissions. Extreme weather events are now rated as the single most prominent global risk.

“Many of these risks have been highlighted in past reports, except now they are moving in the direction of having a higher impact,” said Cecilia Reyes, chief risk officer of Zurich Insurance one of the report’s authors.

The Jan. 17-20 Davos meeting will bring together 3,000 participants, including President Xi Jinping, the first Chinese head of state to attend the WEF, and British Prime Minister Theresa May.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, however, have decided to skip the event. Trump, who will be inaugurated on Jan. 20, will also not be there.

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker was also absent from the line-up published on Tuesday, but there were many presidents, prime ministers and central bankers among the 3,000 participants, along with 1,800 executives from 1,000 companies.

The United States will be represented by Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry, days before they leave office, and “someone from the transition team representing the new (Trump) administration”, Schwab said.

Xi led a forum of Asia-Pacific leaders in Peru in November in vowing to fight protectionism, just days after Trump won the U.S. election having pledged to pull out of the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal.

Foreign businesses in China, however, have long complained about a lack of market access and protectionist Chinese policies. These include a Made in China 2025 plan that calls for a progressive increase in domestic components in sectors such as advanced information technology and robotics.

The fallout of Trump’s pledge to “Make America Great Again” will be debated intensely, however, and his stance on the Middle East and the threat of terrorism is also an area of uncertainty.

Another risk in the spotlight is the rise of robots and the threat posed to jobs. The report names artificial intelligence and robotics as the technologies with the greatest potential for both positive and negative consequences, including exacerbating the threat posed by hacking.

Without effective governance and retraining of workers, technology may destroy more jobs than it creates at a time when cash-strapped governments can no longer afford historical levels of welfare.

The report analysed 30 global risks and 13 underlying trends over a 10-year horizon by surveying around 750 experts and decision makers. 

Davos will end just as Trump takes office, having won the White House in part with promises to pull the United States out of international trade deals and hike tariffs against China and Mexico in a protectionist campaign he says will help bring back industries and jobs to America.

WEF executive chairman Klaus Schwab said he expected Xi to show how China would take a “responsive and responsible leadership role” in global affairs at a turning point in history, with the world needing new concepts to face the future.

“Every simplified approach to deal with the complex global agenda is condemned to fail. We cannot have just populist solutions,” Schwab told a news conference in Geneva, referring to the rising anti-globalization tide epitomized by Trump’s victory and Britain’s vote last year to exit the European Union.  – Reuters 
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