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Davos Man’s Depression

NEW YORK – For 15 years, I have attended the World Economic Forum in Davos. Typically, the leaders gathered there share their optimism about how globalization, technology, and markets are transforming the world for the better. Even during the recession of 2001, those assembled in Davos believed that the downturn would be short-lived.  

But this time, as business leaders shared their experiences, one could almost feel the clouds darkening. The spirit was captured by one participant who suggested that we had gone from “boom and bust” to “boom and Armageddon.” The emerging consensus was that the IMF forecast for 2009, issued as the meeting convened, of global stagnation – the lowest growth in the post-war period – was optimistic. The only upbeat note was struck by someone who remarked that Davos consensus forecasts are almost always wrong, so perhaps this time it would prove excessively pessimistic.

Equally striking was the loss of faith in markets. In a widely attended brainstorming session at which participants were asked what single failure accounted for the crisis, there was a resounding answer: the belief that markets were self-correcting. 

The so-called “efficient markets” model, which holds that prices fully and efficiently reflect all available information, also came in for a trashing. So did inflation targeting: the excessive focus on inflation had diverted attention from the more fundamental question of financial stability. Central bankers’ belief that controlling inflation was necessary and almost sufficient for growth and prosperity had never been based on sound economic theory; now, the crisis provided further skepticism.