Panel discussions, back-to-back private meetings, negotiations to get into the best parties: The World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, was back to its prepandemic form this year, as leaders convened to discuss the state of the world.
It was the first Davos gathering since 2020 without any Covid-related restrictions, as fears about the pandemic almost completely receded. But there was plenty on attendees’ minds. Here are some of the big takeaways from the five-day conference, which ended Friday.
Talk of artificial intelligence was everywhere. Many of the meeting spaces on the main street of Davos billed themselves as places to learn about A.I.; dozens of official panels centered on the technology (including “Generative A.I.: Steam Engine of the Fourth Industrial Revolution?”); and the rock stars of the gathering were A.I. leaders like Sam Altman of OpenAI, Mustafa Suleyman of Inflection AI and Aidan Gomez of Cohere. While the official theme may have been about “rebuilding trust,” the unofficial one was almost undoubtedly “artificial intelligence will reshape everything.”
At times, enthusiasm for discussing A.I.’s potential uses outstripped the current reality of the technology, and many conceded that it was too early to accurately forecast its future. Attendees also discussed potential risks of A.I., including job losses, widening social inequality and the rapid spread of misinformation. One industrial executive mused in a private discussion about whether the cost of retraining workers whose jobs were altered by A.I. would eat up much of the savings created by tech-enabled efficiencies, though others said they had always planned to reinvest any such savings back into their businesses.
E.S.G. may be on the back burner, but it’s still on the stove. As DealBook’s sister newsletter Climate Forward wrote this week, climate change wasn’t a big focus of discussion at Davos despite 2023’s being the hottest year on record.
Even so, executives in both finance and industry spoke positively about financial opportunities in the climate transition, including electric vehicles and lending to decarbonization projects.
Optimism prevailed, albeit cautiously. While attendees were quick to note geopolitical risks like the rise of populist politics and two wars, the outlook at Davos seemed fairly positive.
Executives noted that the macroeconomic picture for much of the world looked promising, as the Fed and other central banks seemed prepared to cut interest rates and inflation largely appeared under control. While some allowed that emboldened regulators could dampen deal-making, nearly all said companies were ready to get down to business, via M.&A., initial public offerings and more.
That said, many — perhaps chastened by Davos’s collective blind spot on the coronavirus at the 2020 confab — said businesses had to be prepared for potential challenges, including a broadening of the Israel-Gaza war, a sharpening of U.S.-Chinese tensions over issues like Taiwan and surprise jolts to the economy.
And here’s a final round of seen-and-heard at Davos this year:
At an annual lunch hosted by Lally Weymouth, a senior associate editor at The Washington Post, attendees were given time to speak, but some went on so long that OpenAI’s Altman — arguably the business celebrity of this year’s event — was given just a few moments to talk, DealBook hears. (Blackstone’s Steve Schwarzman offered to yield his time to Altman.)
A parlor game among attendees was comparing the scores generated by their Oura Ring health trackers, which were generally low given back-to-back meetings during the day and partying well into the night. (Andrew’s “readiness score” — Oura’s measure of whether “you are ready to face greater challenges or if you need some recovery and rest” — hovered in the 50s to 60s, out of 100.) Less hypercompetitive forum goers said they were too afraid to look at their scores. — Michael J. de la Merced
IN CASE YOU MISSED IT
Stocks hit a new high. The S&P 500 index closed at a record on Friday, beating its old high set in early 2022. Investors have homed in on signals that the Fed is done raising interest rates and are betting that will help expand corporate profits.
Apple lost a patent fight. The company is removing a blood-oxygen sensor from its Apple Watch Series 9 and Watch Ultra 2 after the International Trade Commission ruled that the company had violated patents held by Masimo, a medical technology company. Apple this week lost an appeal to delay a ban on importing the devices imposed by the I.T.C.
Donald Trump won the Iowa caucuses in a landslide, and now all eyes are on New Hampshire’s primary on Tuesday, when he is expected to face a strong challenge from Nikki Haley in a state where independent voters can also cast ballots. Trump’s victory came as he is facing 91 felony counts and four criminal trials.
Dick Bove said he would retire after a 50-year career. A banking analyst whose contrarian and oft-bearish calls earned him few fans in Wall Street executive suites, the 83-year-old remained a media fixture up to the last possible moment; he was quoted on Thursday in Bloomberg discussing Trump’s impact on stock prices.
A rough course awaits JetBlue’s new C.E.O.
A federal judge thrust JetBlue Airlines into turmoil this week by blocking its $3.8 billion deal to acquire Spirit Airlines. Overseeing the appeal of that decision will be the first of several urgent challenges awaiting JetBlue’s new C.E.O., Joanna Geraghty, when she takes over next month.
A 51-year-old longtime JetBlue executive, Geraghty will succeed Robin Hayes, who cited health concerns and the “extraordinary challenges and pressure of this job” when announcing this month that he planned to step down.
Geraghty has been at JetBlue for nearly two decades, holding roles that span legal, operations and human resources, and has served as chief operating officer since 2018. A lawyer by training, she worked at the law firm Holland & Knight before JetBlue. She will be the first woman to lead a major U.S. airline.
And she’ll have a tough mess to sort out when she takes the helm.
The first major task: overseeing the appeal. JetBlue and Spirit reported on Friday that they had filed a notice of appeal in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit. Such a move is risky because it extends both costs and uncertainty.
The Justice Department had argued the existence of a “Spirit effect,” wherein the existence of Spirit forced other low-cost airlines to lower the fares. Paul Denis, who represented US Airways in its merger with American Airlines a decade ago, said he thought the trial judge that blocked the merger had wrongfully assumed Spirit would remain as strong a competitor as it had been. The airline, which has not turned a profit since before the pandemic, has been cutting routes and is grappling with a heavy debt load. Spirit said on Friday that it was assessing options to refinance maturities due in 2025.
“It’s not clear that the Spirit effect is going to carry through two years from now,” Denis said.
Still, the judge rejected the notion that Spirit was so weak it needed to do a deal (the “failing firm defense”), arguing that the airlines “presented no evidence that Spirit was in such a dire financial situation that it had no hope for the future.” And as long as Spirit is in business, it will go after low-cost fliers, said George Hay, a professor of economics at Cornell University, who previously worked at the Justice Department.
“The only thing they have to offer is low cost,” Hay said. “Until they literally go bankrupt, they will still be a competitive force.”
Losing an appeal would likely mean JetBlue would need to compete with the big four airlines on its own. The four have a combined 66 percent share of the domestic market. Doing a deal with Spirit would have given JetBlue added might in planes, airport gates and staff. Other attempts to expand the company have also been thwarted: A previous partnership with American Airlines was blocked on its own antitrust concerns. And the carrier lost out to Alaska Airlines its attempt to buy Virgin America.
JetBlue is also still struggling with postpandemic changes. More air travelers are traveling internationally, and shortages of airline traffic controllers persist, contributing to a clogged system. On Friday, the airline said it would cut more routes to improve profitability and reliability. (The airline told CNBC that the plans had been in the works before the judge’s ruling.)
We may know soon how Geraghty is looking to tackle these challenges: JetBlue will report earnings next week.
On our radar: ‘Dragon babies’
China released a spate of bad news this week, but one data point stood out: The population declined for a second straight year, according to government statistics. The country’s demographic crisis isn’t getting any better. A rapidly aging population is already putting a strain on health care and pension systems, while making it much harder for President Xi Jinping to boost domestic consumption and reshape the economy. Fewer births of future workers also threaten medium- to long-term growth.
Some hope that the Chinese lunar calendar could offer some help. The year of the dragon, which begins next month and occurs every 12 years, has historically seen a spurt of so-called dragon babies. One reason is that some Chinese have traditionally believed that children born in a dragon year are luckier and more likely to be successful.
But experts warn there is a hitch: Women of childbearing age in China, who are having fewer babies than their parents, if any at all, are less likely to believe in the old superstitions. “In the past there have been higher births in auspicious zodiac years,” Wang Feng, an expert on Chinese demographics at the University of California, Irvine, told The Financial Times. “But given the pessimistic economic outlook and pessimism among young people, I doubt we will see a noticeable rebound this year.”
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