In its own unpredictable way, the Davos World Economic Forum usually serves as a crude barometer of the latest mood or mania on the world stage. This year did not disappoint. What has struck me is the quiet urgency that infused so many panel discussions and private conversations here between investors, politicians and social activists. To put it crudely: everyone is looking for the guy — the guy who can tell you exactly what ails the world’s financial system, exactly how we get out of this mess and exactly what you should be doing to protect your savings.
But here’s what’s really scary: the guy isn’t here. He’s left the building. Elvis has left the mountain. Get used to it.
What do I mean? First, if it is not apparent to you yet, it will be soon: there is no magic bullet for this economic crisis, no magic bailout package, no magic stimulus. We have woven such a tangled financial mess with subprime mortgages wrapped in complex bonds and derivatives, pumped up with leverage, and then globalized to the far corners of the earth that, much as we want to think this will soon be over, that is highly unlikely.
We are going to have to learn to live with a lot more uncertainty for a lot longer than our generation has ever experienced. We keep pouring money into the dark banking hole of this crisis, desperately hoping that we will hear it hit bottom and start to pile up. But so far, as hard as we listen, we can’t hear a thing. And so we keep pouring …
A broker friend told me it reminded him of when he was a teenager and his doctor first diagnosed him as unable to digest wheat products. He said to the doctor, “Well, just give me a pill.” And the doctor told him: there is no pill. “You mean I’m just going to have to live with this?” he asked. That’s us. There is no pill — not for this mess.
The fact that there is no single pill doesn’t mean there’s nothing to be done. We need a stimulus big enough to create more jobs. We need to remove toxic assets from bank balance sheets. We need the Treasury to close the insolvent banks, merge the weak ones and strengthen the healthy few. And we need to do each one right. But even then, the turnaround will be neither quick nor painless. Indeed, the whispers here were that what has been an exclusively economic crisis up to now may soon morph into a domino of political crises — as happened in Iceland, where the bankruptcy of the banks toppled the government on Monday.
(Davos humor: What is the capital of Iceland? Answer: $25.)
Second, we’re going to have to get used to a loss of trust. All those rock-solid people and institutions that we trusted with our money, our pensions and our kids’ piggybank savings — like Citigroup, Merrill Lynch, Bank of America — do not seem trustworthy anymore. Never before in my adult life have I looked around at every bank in my town and said, “I’m not sure I wouldn’t prefer to put my paycheck in a mattress.”
The Bernard Madoff scandal, of course, has only reinforced that loss of trust. His degree of betrayal — his alleged willingness to embezzle the life savings of people whom he had known his whole life — is so coldhearted that it charts new territory in human behavior. He’s on his way to becoming an adjective. Money managers are already being asked prove to prospective new clients that their internal safeguards are “Madoff proof.”
I’ve written a lot about the Indian outsourcing community, so I knew B. Ramalinga Raju, the Satyam chairman accused of embezzling $1 billion from his own company. What’s really sad is that I didn’t get to know him through his business but through an interest in his family’s charitable work. They created India’s first 911 emergency system in their home state and call centers in Indian villages, so young people there could get service jobs. Was all that a fake, too? Or was he just an embezzler with a good heart? Don’t know. When you can’t even trust a person’s charitable work, you’ve hit a new low.
“We’re all going to have to learn to live with a lower level of trust in our lives,” an African banker friend said to me here. But the mind recoils at that, which may explain why so many people I talked to here are hoping that President Obama will turn out to be the guy.
Like Harry Truman, Obama is definitely present at the creation of something. He is arriving on the scene “not after a war but after the same kind of shattering of institutions that a war does,” said Peter Schwartz, chairman of the Global Business Network. “His job is to restore confidence to these institutions that have been at the foundation of our economy.”
That may be President Obama’s most important bailout task: to educate the country that there is no easy escape here, except taking our medicine, getting our fundamentals right again and working our way out of this, brick by brick, by getting back to making money — what was that old Smith Barney ad? — “the old-fashioned way” — by earning it.
The New York Times