DAVOS, Switzerland, Jan 25 (Reuters) - What a difference a year makes! At the last World Economic Forum in Davos there were frantic secret meetings on saving the euro and private straw polls on whether the euro zone would break up and how soon Greece would be forced out.
Twelve months on, the euro’s survival is widely taken for granted by the policymakers and business leaders attending the annual forum, and the EU’s top economic official has time to go skiing while in the Swiss mountain resort.
“I recall last year in 2012, Davos was full of uncertainty about the euro zone,” European Economic and Monetary Affairs Commissioner Olli Rehn said in an interview.
“Last year there was a very tense mood here. This year I think we are seeing a sentiment moving from stabilisation to recovery, and that means I should get a chance to do some cross-country skiing.”
Perhaps the most striking change in this year’s annual gathering of the captains of business, financial services and government is how little talk there has been about the euro.
The familiar prophets of doom are silent, or at least muted.
Indeed, there was far more discussion in the cavernous Congress Centre and the luxury hotels that surround it of whether Britain will still be in the European Union in a few years’ time after Prime Minister David Cameron’s speech promising an in-out referendum within five years.
“Brexit” has replaced “Grexit” as Davos man’s nightmare.
Cameron got a warm reception when he addressed the global forum as chairman of the Group of Eight major industrialised nations with a rousing call for free-trade agreements, more open markets, greater competition and a crackdown on tax avoidance.
But his comments on the EU were more divisive. “To try and shoehorn countries into a centralised political union would be a great mistake for Europe, and Britain wouldn’t be part of it,” he declared.
BBC Economics Correspondent Stephanie Flanders drew applause that reflected many participants’ unease when she asked Cameron whether he thought the business community welcomed the prospect of five years of uncertainty over Britain’s future in the EU.
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, a close Cameron ally in pressing for greater economic liberalism in the EU, said a British vote to leave would be a disaster, but he did not think it would happen.
Last year, the economic elite were hanging on every word of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s speech, in which she rejected pressure to increase the size of the euro zone’s rescue fund for troubled states.
The key to reassuring markets was to restore lost trust in government policies, she said.
In the end, Germany did accept a somewhat bigger financial firewall, and a European bailout of Spain’s banks. But it was a pledge by European Central Bank chief Mario Draghi last July to do whatever it took to preserve the euro that was the turning point in the crisis.
Berlin’s decision in August, after months of hesitation, to keep Greece in the currency area at the cost of more financial aid and a possible future writedown of Greek debt owed to euro zone governments was the other big inflection point.
Speculators have so far not risked betting against the ECB’s determination, allowing Spanish and Italian bond yields to fall back to levels not seen since before the peak of the crisis.
Draghi told the Davos forum that there was “positive contagion on the financial market and for the financial variables, but we don’t see this transmitted to the real economy yet.”
Yet he resisted any idea of relaxing the austerity policies that are contributing to keeping much of the euro zone economy in recession, saying fiscal consolidation was unavoidable.
Both Spain and Italy have adopted strict austerity budgets and tough reforms of pensions and labour markets, while Ireland and Portugal have stuck doggedly to EU-IMF adjustment programmes and are aiming to return to market funding this year.
A group of healthier European banks were due to announce on Friday that they have repaid early some of the 489 billion euros ($649 billion) they borrowed in ultra-cheap liquidity from the ECB last December to avoid a looming credit crunch.
Klaus Regling, head of the euro zone’s ESM rescue fund, told Reuters that foreign investors are piling back into southern European countries’ debt auctions, with China and other Asian buyers leading the way, followed by Middle East funds and, more slowly, U.S. institutions.
Only three months ago, Spain seemed to be on the brink of having to request a sovereign assistance programme to trigger ECB buying of its bonds. The question was when, not if.
Now Regling says he does not expect to have to fund a bailout of Spain this year. Tiny Cyprus, closely linked financially to Greece, is the only euro zone country that is requesting emergency loans.
Investors and business consultants say they see signs of investment returning to the euro zone, although not necessarily to all of its troubled fringes.
“In Europe, people recognise it is going to be a long process, but I think they are not nearly as pessimistic about the long-term solvency of the European Union than they were last year,” said Ken Frazier, CEO of global drugmaker Merck & Co.
“There’s a lot of commitment to the euro, and I also think that people sometimes ignore that Europe is still a strong economic engine,” he said, even though his company has suffered from cuts in European healthcare spending due to austerity.
The main concern of political leaders, central bankers and investors is that European leaders should not get complacent and let up on economic reforms now the existential crisis is over.
“There is complacency, and it is very dangerous,” Angel Gurria, head of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, told Reuters. “Everybody thinks we are off. But we are not. How can it be? We still have stubbornly high unemployment.”
Asked what her biggest concern was for 2013, IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde listed the fiscal problems of the United States, Japan and Europe, and keeping up the momentum of structural economic reform in all three areas.
The WEF’s Global Risks report, compiled a few weeks before the Davos meeting, listed a possible systemic financial system failure as one of the top five concerns, citing a persistent threat from the euro zone, even though it has avoided break-up.
“The current eurozone instability will continue to shape global prospects in the coming years,” the survey of 1,000 experts and industry executives found.
“The associated risk of systemic financial failure, although limited, cannot be completely discarded,” the study said.