Big bankers defensive at World Economic Forum in Davos

Wednesday 23 January 2013 22.03
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'Resilient Dynamism' is the theme for this year's Davos meeting
'Resilient Dynamism' is the theme for this year's Davos meeting
Jamie Dimon, chairman and CEO of JP Morgan Chase, says banks are 'doing the right thing'
Jamie Dimon, chairman and CEO of JP Morgan Chase, says banks are 'doing the right thing'

Leading world bankers at the World Economic Forum in Davos are on the defensive amid demands to regulate their industry more closely.

This follows a financial crisis that has battered large chunks of the global economy.

Bankers have been widely blamed for the financial crisis that has dramatically reduced the living standards of many in the developed world, whether they are in work or not.

A UN body said today that the number of unemployed around the world will rise to a record 202 million this year with many countries, particularly in Europe, struggling to post any growth at all. 

"We're doing the right thing," Jamie Dimon, chairman and CEO of JP Morgan Chase & Co, said today in Davos. 

And in a defiant note, he insisted that "there will be a financial services sector" whether critics like it or not.

Mr Dimon last week took a 50% cut in his pay packet following a multibillion dollar trading loss in London.

He insisted that the world needs banks so that people can get on with their everyday lives of buying a house and growing their businesses.

Without banks, Mr Dimon said, governments could not function.

Banks have spent much of the past few years in a bunker, getting on with shoring up their tarnished finances - and that has spelled difficulties for many in need to get their hands on money they need.

One solution being espoused around the world is to siphon off risky trading activities from traditional banking.

Axel Weber, a former central banker and current chairman of Swiss-based bank UBS, acknowledged the "excesses" of the past.

He said it was pointless to debate breaking up banks. "Where does the financial sector start or stop?" he asked.

"It's so intricately linked that we shouldn't throw out the baby with the bathwater. We all provide valuable social functions," he said.

Both bankers spoke in Davos today at the annual gathering of more than 2,500 corporate and political leaders.

Among those questioning the bankers' assertion that the financial sector is doing fine and doing its job was Min Zhu, deputy managing director of the International Monetary Fund.

"The financial sector is too big," he said. "The products are too complicated. Transparency is not there," he added.

Andrei Kostin, chairman of Russia's VTB Bank argued it was governments who ran up excess debts - and not banks - and were largely to blame for recent economic troubles.

"We should have better regulations but not necessarily more," he said.

Falling CEO confidence sets scene for Davos

Meanwhile, chief executives are less optimistic about short-term growth prospects for their companies than a year ago, according to a survey that offers a reality check on rising stock markets.

Business leaders and policymakers are meeting in Davos in cautious mood, with much of Europe in recession, growth in China and India slowing, and a hoped-for US recovery yet to prove itself.

The PricewaterhouseCoopers survey of 1,330 CEOs found only 36% were "very confident" of their firm's prospects for revenue growth in the next 12 months, down from 40% a year ago.

It is the second consecutive year of falling confidence.

Latin America was the only region to buck the global trend, according to the report published as 2,500 delegates, including 1,600 business leaders, gathered in the Swiss Alps for the annual World Economic Forum.

Unsurprisingly, European bosses were the most pessimistic, with just 22% very confident of growth, down from 27% last year. Confidence in North America also fell to 33% from 42%, while Asia slipped to 36% from 42%.

Even business leaders in Africa - now widely touted as the next high-growth region - were less upbeat than a year ago.

"CEOs see a global economy that is reluctant to recover and that clearly impacts how they think about their own companies' prospects," said Dennis Nally, chairman of PricewaterhouseCoopers International.

"They are running their businesses cautiously, not really prepared to make any significant investments or additions to headcounts until they can get some more clarity,'' he added.

Companies have responded to tough times by managing operations more tightly.

That means cost cutting remains a priority and ambitious investment projects, including big acquisitions, are off the agenda for now.

Continuing uncertainty over economic growth tops the list of CEO concerns, with the problems caused by governments running unsustainable fiscal deficits ranking second.

Other issues also keeping company managers awake at night include concerns about excessive regulation and the instability of capital markets.

The prevailing business mood paints a bleak picture for job prospects, with only 45% of chief executives planning to recruit in 2013 - down from 51% in 2012 - while 23% intend to reduce the size of their workforce.

Resilient Dynamism theme for Davos gathering

Davos is the venue for the World Economic Forum, an annual gathering of more than 2,000 decision-makers from nearly 100 countries and hundreds of companies that starts today.

The WEF has taken "Resilient Dynamism" as the theme for this year's event.

Yet the global economy is expected to remain sluggish in 2013, with two of the biggest economies - the euro zone and Japan - in recession.

There is also a risk that the US, the world's largest economy, may slash government spending - a step that could dampen the world economy.

Few think global economic growth will even match last year's tepid 3.3%.

Despite that, as fear of a catastrophe has eased, optimism appears to have taken hold among investors.

The world's financial markets have surged. Both the US Standard & Poor's 500 and Europe's STOXX 600 have risen over 13% in the past 12 months.

Fuelling much of the improvement has been a flood of monetary expansion from the world's central banks.

The US Federal Reserve, the Bank of England, the Bank of Japan and the Swiss National Bank have purchased financial assets such as bonds with newly created money.

The central banks have also slashed short-term interest rates to record lows - to near zero in the case of the Fed. The ECB has also lent over €1 trillion to banks at low rates.

The European Central Bank gave the eurozone its biggest boost when it offered last fall to buy unlimited debt of heavily indebted countries such as Spain and Italy.

That action lowered their borrowing costs and eased fears that those governments would default.

Fears that the group of 17 European countries that use the euro would break up under the weight of its debt crisis faded throughout 2012.

One factor bolstering the euro zone was the deal struck between Europe and the International Monetary Fund to stop Greece from being forced to default on its debts and abandon the euro.

As interest rates have dropped, investors have shifted money into stocks, property and other assets, driving up their prices.

One of the biggest market jumps in 2012 came in Greece's own Athens stock exchange, where stocks catapulted 33%.

Some pillars of the US economy, like the housing, banking and car sectors, have been gradually yet steadily recovering from the American recession, which officially ended ovr three years ago.

And relief was widely felt at the end of 2012, when President Barack Obama and the US Congress cut a deal on tax rates and delayed the "fiscal cliff" of automatic cuts and tax increases.

Worries that China, the world's number two economy, would suffer a sudden slowdown proved unfounded as the country's new Communist leadership appeared to signal its commitment to growth policies.

Its leaders are trying to reduce China's reliance on exports by encouraging Chinese consumers to spend more at home.

Analysts caution that the still-sluggish global economy has little room for error.

IHS Global Insight predicts the worldwide economy will expand just 2.5% in 2013, even less than last year's estimated 2.6%.

In the US, unemployment remains elevated at 7.8% as US employers have held back on hiring and pay rises.