The mood at Davos was the gloomiest since 2009. Dismal markets, oil, China – plus the challenges of disruptive technology, the refugee crisis and poor market liquidity – dominated debates. While consensus was less confident on how to navigate the risks, it likely acts as a catalyst to drive change.
1. The growing stress in the oil and commodity complex – alongside leaders being unnerved by China slowing – was the number one concern (although only marginally above the future of Europe). The impact on asset prices, emerging market economies and emerging-market capital flows (including SWFs) was uppermost among central bankers' and investors' concerns.
While conclusions varied widely on the scale of the risks and the ability of central banks to confront deflation, one thing that was clear to me was the desire by policy-makers to reduce further any channel of contagion. It reinforced my view of yet more “Balkanization” as countries seek to protect themselves from uncoordinated overseas risks.
2. I sensed a sea change in the perceived threat level of disruptive financial new entrants to bank profits. Bankers – and a growing number of regulators I met this year – are beginning to share our concern that new entrants could skim the cream, or undercut existing providers, and expose banks' large, regulated cost bases. To confront "partnering" with fintech players was the buzz. More concerning, one policy-maker called for a rapid introduction of a cashless society so that even more negative deposit interest rates could be introduced in Europe to offset likely secular stagnation. Bottom line, I came away more concerned about the longer-term risks to intermediaries who don’t seize the fintech day.
3. The political challenges for Europe – the refugee crisis, terrorism, uncoordinated bank bail-ins, the risk of Brexit and how to fund growth in Europe – were very hotly debated. The refugee crisis was viewed by one senior politician I met as the biggest political challenge in 20 years for EU solidarity, far bigger than Greece (and would likely drive borders to be closed by the second quarter). On funding growth, the good news for investors is there’s a growing consensus that Europe sorely needs a more diverse funding market. But good news on Capital Markets Union was offset by how much the teething pains of poor coordination of Banking Union (particularly in Portugal) has hit the confidence of international investors in some peripheral investments.
4. Concerns about the “crunch” in market liquidity shot up the agenda. Stress testing of large bond funds internationally is now inevitable – talking with policy-makers – it’s only a matter of how. More intriguingly, I think we may be seeing the beginnings of a reappraisal of the cumulative impact of overlapping regulations impeding liquidity.
5. Which leaves the conference theme: the Fourth Industrial Revolution. While there was much optimism about the value creation from the internet of things, robots and the ”internet of value”, plenty of venture capitalists and tech CEOs I met privately shared the Forum’s conference concern that technology, machine learning and automation will hit the global middle class hard – although it’s also likely to drive big improvements in productivity. Hopefully, the Davos consensus was – as in 2009 – too bleak, as business and policy-makers look to respond to these transitions and risks.
Author: Huw van Steenis is Managing Director at Morgan Stanley