Alpine Schadenfreude

Not surprisingly, the atmosphere at this year’s World Economic Forum was grim. Those who think that globalization, technology, and the market economy will solve the world’s problems seemed subdued. Most chastened of all were the bankers. Against the backdrop of the sub-prime crisis, the disasters at many financial institutions, and the weakening of the stock market, these “masters of the universe” seemed less omniscient than they did a short while ago. And it was not just the bankers who were in the Davos doghouse this year, but also their regulators – the central bankers.

Anyone who goes to international conferences is used to hearing Americans lecture everyone else about transparency. There was still some of that at Davos. I heard the usual suspects – including a former treasury secretary who had been particularly vociferous in such admonishments during the East Asia crisis – bang on about the need for transparency at sovereign wealth funds (though not at American or European hedge funds).

But this time, developing countries could not resist commenting on the hypocrisy of it all.  There was even a touch of schadenfreude in the air about the problems the United States is having right now – though it was moderated, of course, by worries about the downturn’s impact on their own economies.

Had America really told others to bring in American banks to teach them about how to run their business? Had America really boasted about its superior risk management systems, going so far as to develop a new regulatory system (called Basle II)? Basle II is dead – at least until memories of the current disaster fade.