Page last updated at 18:04 GMT, Saturday, 31 January 2009

Davos: Let's hear it for the optimists

By Tim Weber
Business editor, BBC News website, in Davos

Delegates at World Economic Forum
Some Davos delegates managed to find things to smile about

Oh, what a few depressing days it's been here in Davos. One couldn't even have fun playing buzzword bingo.

The word recession could be ticked off in minutes - usually during the opening remarks of any session.

And we did not have to wait long for any of the other words: crisis, bail-out, protectionism, billions of dollar, trillions of dollar and on and on.

So let's hear it for the optimists at the World Economic Forum, intrepid souls who see the silver lining, spot the opportunity, do not believe that all is lost.

And it was possible to find them, provided one looked hard enough.

A good crisis

As recessions go, the current one is considered to be pretty bad, the worst since the 1930s.

Easyjet founder Sir Stelios Haji-Ioannou
Sir Stelios takes an optimistic view of the current crisis.

But never let a good crisis go to waste, the saying goes, and there are plenty of entrepreneurs who want to seize the moment.

A downturn, they say, is a good time to grab market share from weakened competitors.

It's the moment to launch a disruptive technology, because every company is re-examining how it works and looks to make efficiencies.

Talking up their opportunities are the usual suspects, Sir Richard Branson of Virgin Group, and Sir Stelios Haji-Ioannou, founder of Easyjet.

"But everybody else is so gloomy here, are you really that optimistic," I ask Sir Stelios. "I've been calling the bottom of this market since November," he says with a laugh.

"Somebody's got to do it."

Optimism merchants

Yes, the fundamentals are bad, everybody admits, but "it's the lack of confidence that is slowing everything down," says Richard Muirhead, founder and chief executive of Tideway.

His company develops software that helps companies to run their data centres and computers more efficiently.

It saves companies money, he says, and hopes the downturn will persuade companies to spend a little on his software to save a lot in energy costs.

Yes, he admits, business has slowed, more than expected, but "as entrepreneur I deal in optimism".

Watch technology

After talking to a range of people here, two or three sectors quickly emerge as potential winners of the crisis.

The first is technology.

Whether a start-up like Tideway or a giant like chipmaker Intel, they are convinced that the promise of innovation and efficiency will keep their business going.

"In the world of technology you can not afford not to keep investing in research and development," Intel's chairman Craig Barrett tells me.

The downturn may last a few years, he says, but customers will still want to buy his company's new energy efficient chips, because the savings could pay for itself within a year.

As a matter of fact, in all recent recessions it was new technology that was a key driver of economic recovery, say both Cristobal Conde, chief executive of software firm Sungard, and George Colony, chief executive of technology research firm Forrester.

Watch telecoms

There's another bright spot.

A session on mobile phones in the developing world was introduced as the "good news" session. There are plenty of opportunities for growth and profit for network operators, while whenever mobile phones are introduced in poor countries, economic growth follows.

"For every 10% of mobile phone penetration, on average an economy gains 1.5% in gross domestic product," says Alexander Izosimov, boss of VimpelCom and chairman of the GSM association.

Growth opportunities abound not only in developing countries, he says.

Once governments release new frequency spectrum, a fast roll-out of 4G mobile phone networks with download speeds of 100 Megabits a second (and 50Mb/s upload) promises huge economic opportunities.

Instead of subsidising failing industries during the current crisis, argues Mr Izosimov, governments should make the necessary spectrum available for free, sit back and watch the economic benefits.

Watch social entrepreneurs

And then there are the people who are used to dealing with a crisis.

 Founder and Chairman, SKS Microfinance, India
Social entrepreneurs aren't too downbeat.

Vikram Akula is the founder of SKS Microfinance. A Yale graduate, he fights poverty by providing small loans to people in Indian slums.

"They are the poorest, outside the financial system and the least affected by this crisis," he says. He boasts a 99% repayment rate, and has two months ago raised $35m in fresh funding.

"This crisis is an opportunity for growth," says Mr Akula.

And then there is Cameron Sinclair.

His business card gives his job title: "eternal optimist".

The co-founder of Architecture for Humanity links up designers and architects from around the world with crisis regions that need rebuilding.

"This crisis is our chance to address big issues and change mindsets," he says. People don't talk about sustainability anymore because they want to be nice, but because they want to survive.

Investment opportunities

One Davos session even looked for the "silver lining to the financial cloud".

So where to invest? It may sound dangerous, but distressed debt (aka toxic assets) was said to present huge opportunities because it trades at sharply discounted prices. The only problem, one participant said, was that doing these deals is like doing "hand-to-hand combat".

And with every government lining up huge spending programmes, infrastructure companies are likely to be a good bet. Expect a boom in building roads, bridges, and digital and electricity networks.

And cash is king again. Any company with a good cash flow and little debt was found to be a worthy candidate for investment.

Adventurous spirits were pointed to emerging markets with rapidly growing populations like India, China and South Korea, because domestic demand is set to remain strong.

But when one cash-rich investor was asked what he would be buying, he admitted: "Even with our cash, we're still heading for the hills."

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