World Economic Forum: The spirit of Davos brings Doha trade talks back from the dead

Delegates are left in little doubt as to who wears the trousers in the Bill and Melinda Gates relationship
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The Independent Online

As a counter to those who dismiss Davos as no more than a giant talking shop, the World Economic Forum has delivered a breakthrough in the trade talks. Or has it?

At what he conceded would be his last Davos as prime minister, Tony Blair said success in the Doha trade round over the next three to four months was now "more likely than not".

Luis Inacio Lula da Silver, the president of Brazil, was likewise "very positive" and predicted a deal within the same time frame. Pascal Lamy, the director general of the World Trade Organisation, said that the trade round, declared dead last July, was now "living" again.

The presence of 30 trade ministers from around the globe seems to have produced a meeting of minds which has allowed countries to put aside their individual demands in pursuit of multilateral co-operation.

That's what Davos, with its intoxicating mix of power and optimism, does to you. Whether that resolve holds true remains to be seen. At issue is the willingness of the rich nations - the US, Europe and Japan - to cut their agricultural subsidies to satisfy developing economies such as Brazil and India. They've agreed to more talks, but no one has yet agreed a deal.

None the less, there has been progress. M. Lamy said there had been a switch from a flying circus to the approach mode which occurs when the control tower tells you the runway is free to land. Extending his metaphor, which he was clearly enjoying, M. Lamy said it was obviously more difficult to land a plane in a smog. "What the big cheeses of governments have done is tell their negotiators that the weather has been cleared for them to land."

Yet no sooner has the runway been declared clear than obstacles are reappearing. Peter Mandelson, the European Trade commissioner, insisted he would "push the envelope" of his mandate from member states to the absolute limits in order to win a trade deal. Europe has now put flexibility on tariffs, agricultural subsidy and trade rules formally on the table.

Unfortunately, it is not yet certain that Mr Mandelson can carry all member states with him. The French, in particular have expressed concern.

Mr Mandelson warns that it is important negotiators don't agree a package they would not be able to sell to their home countries. If the threshold was pushed too far, it would lose the support of constituencies and "we will only commit ourselves to failure".

The commissioner said the Doha round was worth more in terms of the boost it was likely to deliver to world trade than any previous agreement. "To allow what is within our grasp to slip away would be a terrible act of failure," he said, warning that the world would retreat into a new age of protectionism should it fail.

Susan Schwab, the US trade representative, was equally cautious. She seemed to suggest that there was little likelihood of a deal being done before President George Bush's fast-track authority runs out in July.

Any deal would therefore depend on winning an extension of the dispensation from Congress. On this she was hopeful, but only if further talks produced a breakthrough that might be acceptable to her constituents.

Japan seems more cautious still. Its trade minister, Akira Amari, said he was in no position to give numbers on any concessions that might be made on agricultural subsidies. "We have to think about our domestic support and so on," he said.

Not much change there then. Still, at least an end is now in sight, if not yet the successful one everyone here hopes for. At some stage in the next three to four months, either a deal is done or that will be the end of the matter. Davos has succeeded in reviving the trade talks. It is not yet clear whether this is anything more than a brief remission.

Web 2.0

If you don't know what Web 2.0 is, take heart. Even the experts struggle to explain exactly what this buzz phrase means, other than just fast internet. The expression may be little more than marketing hype, yet few here in Davos are in any doubt that it is has profound consequences for business and media.

Chad Hurley, the co-founder and chief executive of YouTube, the video sharing website, says: "Web 2.0 is changing the world because for the first time it gives everyone a voice and a chance to get heard and seen."

Bill Gates, the chairman of Microsoft, is less sure that what we are seeing is a revolution. He thinks of it as more of a digital evolution. In his mind, there was never a bust in the technology sector. PC sales have continued to grow and so has internet use. Investment in the industry globally also continued to increase throughout the dot.com bust. The personal empowerment that this digital investment allows will keep growing too, he reckons. He's an extremist and thinks that the printed word will eventually disappear entirely.

He also believes that user generated content in combination with self-scheduling of programming will destroy the traditional broadcast television model.

Other than the hardware, software and network providers, can anyone make any money out of these developments? Caterina Fake, the founder of Flickr, a photo sharing site, insists that "the urge to share is stronger than the urge to earn".

This endearingly naive view doesn't seem to be shared by Mr Hurley, who says that YouTube, which doesn't make any money, is about to announce an advertising model designed to capitalise on its success with users.

The model envisaged will allow advertising revenues to be shared with content providers, which itself promises to make the best amateur video enthusiasts into millionaires.

Mike Parker, the chief executive of Nike, has launched a website that allows consumers to design their own, customised shoes. He has this stark warning for business. "If you don't embrace this empowerment of the consumer, you are at risk. I will go further. I think it is deadly for business".

Bill and Melinda Gates

To breakfast with Bill and Melinda Gates. Delegates are left in little doubt about who wears the trousers in that relationship. Melinda does much of the talking about the couple's work in the Third World. She's feisty, passionate and leaves little room for doubt that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is making a difference with its vaccination and healthcare programmes.

Do the couple ever quarrel about objectives? There's never been a major disagreement, Melinda insists, but sometimes one of them gets a little ahead of the other in their thinking, and matters have to be discussed over a long walk. So why has Melinda taken on a more public profile? One reason is that she wants to be a role model for her three children. But perhaps they don't want to be high-achieving world leaders? This thought does not seem to have crossed her mind. Bill is planning to devote himself full time to the Foundation from next year, although he won't be severing all ties with Microsoft.

As for Melinda, we may be hearing rather more from her in the future than from Bill.

What keeps you awake at night?

What might disrupt the "Goldilocks" economy which most are predicting for the next few years? There were plenty of answers from a session on financial risk. For Michael Klein, the co-head of investment banking at Citigroup, the worry is excess liquidity supported by a world awash with derivatives, all of which would be vulnerable to any rise in long-term interest rates. Michael Griffin, the chief executive of the hedge fund operator Citadel, thinks the main risk to be that of a regulatory crackdown on hedge funds, which would push up the cost of liquidity and therefore break the present cycle of business-led growth.

John Thain, the chief executive of the New York Stock Exchange, reckons the main threats are geo-political. For David Rubenstein, the co-founder of the private equity firm Carlyle Group, it's that a major private equity deal goes wrong, leading to multiple insolvencies and a regulatory crackdown on debt leverage. What worries Malcolm Knight, the general manager of the Bank of International Settlements, on the other hand, is deteriorating credit quality.

That's an awful lot of bears lurking in the undergrowth for Goldilocks to watch out for.

Blogging

Blog, blog, blog, blog. One sound has united the meeting rooms of the main conference centre here in Davos: the light tapping of computer keys as the World Economic Forum went blogging mad. Blogs, it transpired, were the true story of last week's meeting, at least according to the quorum of businessmen aged 50 and over who came across these web diaries for the first time.

Given that one new blog is apparently started every second and that the mean number of readers for each blog in existence is one, it may be premature to get overexcited. What the world really needs, according to Maurice Levy at the advertising giant Publicis, is a medium to boil all those zillions of words down to something comprehensible. Just in case you didn't know, it's called a newspaper.

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