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Will Davos talkshop inspire progress after economic gloom?

By Paul Armstrong, CNN
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Rethink, redesign, rebuild
  • Politicians, business leaders put global financial system under the microscope
  • Motto this year: "Improve the state of the world: rethink, redesign, rebuild
  • WEF's annual global risk report warns of threats to the fragile recovery
  • Report exposed fundamental need to change thinking on global risks

Davos, Switzerland (CNN) -- A year ago business leaders and politicians from around the world gathered in a picturesque alpine resort in Switzerland to discuss how best to navigate the stormy waters of a global recession.

For five days at the 39th World Economic Forum Annual Meeting at Davos, shell-shocked chief executives, finance ministers, lawyers, bankers and entrepreneurs put the global financial system under a microscope, attempting to gauge the depth of the crisis and how best to tackle it.

"There is no clear map from past experience for how we deal with it. We are learning about new problems for which we have no historical analogies to fall back on," British Prime Minister Gordon Brown told CNN's Christiane Amanpour at the time.

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Public confidence in the banking sector was at an all-time low, unemployment across much of the world was rising rapidly, while Washington was accused by China and Russia of actually causing the crisis.

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The last point was compounded by the fact no-one from incoming President Barack Obama's economic policy team even showed up, forcing delegates to guess the direction the new administration would take to find a solution.

As a result the underlying theme at Davos that year, "Shaping the post-crisis world," seemed ludicrously premature as grim-faced delegates resigned themselves to the gloomy prospect of a long recession.

Even the alpine talking shop's normally glitzy social scene had a more austere, dressed-down feel, with fewer parties and more conservative business suits.

Twelve months on and the motto for the 40th World Economic Forum is a call to action, "Improve the State of the World: Rethink, Redesign, Rebuild."

With many countries including the U.S., Japan and Germany officially "out" of recession --- banks are once again returning huge profits while consumers are spending -- this theme seems a little more in tune with the times.

Yet no-one is under any illusion that the great crisis is over. In its 2010 Global Risk Report, the WEF warned of a second wave of economic turmoil unless further measures are taken to enhance global resilience against an increasingly connected series of risks, from energy security to growing national debt created by bank bailouts and other private debt guarantees.

In short the report exposed a fundamental need to change thinking on global risks and how they are managed, with the emphasis on "overhauling current values and behaviors by decision-makers to improve coordination and supervision."

Last week President Obama appeared to take this warning to heart when he proposed the biggest overhaul of Wall Street since the 1930s, with a plan that included limits to the size of banks and restrictions on riskier trading. The controversial reforms could force the restructuring of some of the biggest names in U.S. finance, including JPMorgan Chase and Goldman Sachs.

Obama promised that "never again will the American taxpayer be held hostage by a bank that is too big to fail." British banks such as Royal Bank of Scotland, which is now state-controlled following a huge government bailout, may be looking on nervously.

So will this be a year of action after two years of turmoil and collective navel-gazing?

According to WEF Founder and Executive Chairman Klaus Schwab "we have to look at the meeting in the context of what's happening in the world ... and clearly, the present system of global cooperation is not working sufficiently.

"We want to look at all issues on the global agenda in a systemic, integrated and strategic way, and we want to address in particular the issue of global cooperation. This is the reason why our Annual Meeting this year is tailored around the need to rethink, redesign and rebuild.

"This means we have to rethink our values as we're living in a society with many different cultures. We have to redesign our processes -- how we deal with the challenges on the global agenda -- and finally we have to rebuild our institutions."

French President Nicolas Sarkozy, an advocate of tough regulation in the financial sector, is likely to ruffle a few feathers when he makes the opening speech at this year's event on Wednesday. He's expected to launch a broadside at western capitalism and the perceived excesses of the free market.

Sarkozy will be followed by the usual cast list of blue-chip delegates at Davos throughout the week, including Bill and Melinda Gates, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, Google CEO Eric Schmidt, Pascal Lamy, Director-General of the World Trade Organization and Deutsche Bank chief Josef Ackermann.

Former U.S. President and U.N. special representative Bill Clinton is expected to host a special session to launch a major initiative to engage businesses in the reconstruction of earthquake-hit Haiti.