World Economic Forum Opens In Davos, Switzerland

About 2,500 business, world leaders and activists are attending the five-day World Economic Forum. Nariman Behravesh, chief economist at IHS Global Insight, talks to Steve Inskeep about what to expect from the annual gathering.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Let's move from Ohio's economy to the world economy. Political and business leaders from around the world have gathered this week at a Swiss ski resort, Davos, for the annual World Economic Forum. The forum opened today and will be looking at issues like world trade, currency rates, government debt, and inflation.

We called economist Nariman Behravesh, who's one of the people attending.

What is happening at Davos? Exactly how does it work?

Mr. NARIMAN BEHRAVESH (Economist, Global Insight): Davos works on a number of different levels. At one level you have the public meetings, panel discussions. And while those are interesting enough, that's really not where the substantive discussions take place. A lot of the very interesting discussions are in the private meetings and dinners and lunches between corporate leaders and politicians, between politicians and politicians, and sometimes there's actually progress made on some tricky issues. I think that in the end, those one on ones, those bilateral discussions, as they're called here, is where a lot of the progress is made.

INSKEEP: Can you think of something from a past year that happened that you realize six months later, nine months later, even a year and a half later, that that was a meeting or that was a face-to-face that may have really made a difference in the world economy?

Mr. BEHRAVESH: I think it's a little hard to tell on some of this stuff. But stuff that's come out subsequently, there were certainly discussions between, say the Israelis and the Palestinians in the mid-1990s, that opened some doors. There've been discussions on the financial crisis a couple of years ago in terms of bank regulation and so forth. But at the time it's very hard to tell because, you know, a lot of those meetings are very, very private.

INSKEEP: Would I be stepping too far to compare this to the Academy Awards for global leaders and financial exports, I mean not that there are awards handed out, but everybody steps out on the red carpet, everybody gets to be seen, everybody looks at everybody else being seen, that sort of thing?

Mr. BEHRAVESH: That very much is one level of this conference. But I think the reason why a lot of CEOs and politicians come here, but especially CEOs, is to sort of to take the temperature of other CEOs, if you will, to just get a sense of are we making the right business decisions here?

INSKEEP: There's been some attention to the sheer numbers of people the different countries are sending. What do you make of the fact that China and India are sending bigger delegations than they have in the past while the United States is sending a smaller delegation, perhaps because it would appear unseemly at a time of high unemployment in the U.S. to have a lot of officials hanging around a ski resort?

Mr. BEHRAVESH: I think there's a lot of symbolism to that that is not backed by substance. And by that I mean that, certainly the quality of the people from the U.S. coming here, still quite high. American business people and European business people want to connect with their Chinese and Indian counterpart, and that's very important. I mean, I think everybody understands that that's where the growth is going to be.

INSKEEP: Been an awful lot of anxiety in the United States, as I'm sure you know very well, about supposed American decline and an awful lot of discussion of a rising China, rising India, changing world order. That's the public discussion. What do you hear when you're in private with other executives, CEOs, and anybody else you may be able to talk with?

Mr. BEHRAVESH: I think a lot of the business leaders are much more interested in the opportunities that China forts the growing market there. What's they are most concerned about are the kind of barriers that China might be putting in place or has put in place, that would make that business difficult. Will they have access to China's and India's markets? Rather than somehow or other that China is going to catch up with the U.S. or India is going to catch up with the U.S. I think that's less on the radar screen for a lot of the business leaders.

INSKEEP: And why is that?

Mr. BEHRAVESH: Well, I think that their view of the world is, if China grows it'll benefit everybody. You know, the growing Chinese consumer market will be very good for U.S. businesses and U.S. employment in the end; for the Boeings of this world, for example, the Microsoft of this world, as will the workers in those companies. So I mean, they view this mostly as a positive thing.

INSKEEP: Nariman Behravesh is chief economist at IHS Global Insight.

Thanks very much.

Mr. BEHRAVESH: My pleasure.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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