What happened at the FT Global Boardroom?

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The second edition of the FT Global Boardroom digital event this week focused on how to shape the post-pandemic recovery. Over the course of three days featuring dozens of live-streamed discussions, government policymakers, business leaders, central bankers and other experts debated topics ranging from the global impact of the US election to the ways in which the pandemic has forced a rethink on topics including climate change, technology adoption and the future of work.

An audience of thousands watched these free-to-view debates on how economies are rebuilding in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, on the risks as the second wave continues to unfold, and what the future might look like. All the sessions are available to watch here.

Here are some of the conclusions.

The crisis could kickstart a climate change reset

The pandemic was a wake-up call on the climate emergency. President-elect Joe Biden is expected to bring the US back into the Paris climate agreement, which could lead to a race to the top in green action, said Rachel Kyte, dean of the Fletcher School at Tufts University. “With the return of the US, it will be harder for climate deniers to operate,” she said, adding that “when the US joins the race it tries to win”.

“The Covid crisis is leveraging the kind of funds that wouldn’t be possible otherwise,” said Todd Stern, senior fellow of foreign policy, energy security and climate initiative, Brookings Institution.

However, he warned: “China’s latest commitments to climate change won’t be enough unless they aim to get emissions under control this decade. By the 2030s it will be too late.”

Cautious optimism about vaccine breakthroughs

Speakers discussed this week’s news from Pfizer and BioNTech on a new vaccine, but agreed it was unlikely that any vaccines would be widely available anytime soon.

“We’re talking six, seven or eight months to vaccinate the [national] population to stop the spread of the pandemic,” said Sweden’s state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell, who also spoke about the country’s decision not to implement a full lockdown at any stage. He said it was “a big mystery” who in the country’s population had developed immunity but insisted Covid-19 was a “long-term haul”.

“I did not expect a result as striking as this,” said Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. He predicted that positive data from a second Covid-19 vaccine could come quickly, as he revealed that US biotech company Moderna would begin assessing data from its Phase 3 vaccine trials “within a week”.

Global collaboration would be necessary to “intensify our efforts of control” and “double down on the public health measures”, he said, and it was difficult to know how long immunity would last. “One of the things I’ve learned over the decades is: don’t ever get overconfident and don’t assume anything.”

The world is watching for change in US policy under Biden

“We do have to remember that the election is not certified,” said Anne-Marie Slaughter, chief executive of the New America Institute and former director of policy planning under Hillary Clinton. Until that time, she said, President Trump was completely within his rights to challenge the result.

“Even if you really reach to the recesses of your mind to find some path blocking Biden, you wouldn’t find it,” said Phil Gordon, senior fellow of the Council on Foreign Relations, though “it is still deeply discouraging that Trump is refusing to accept the result”.

“Biden is an internationalist and a multilateralist — he wants to engage the world,” said Ms Slaughter.

Former UK foreign secretary William Hague said Mr Biden becoming US president would be good for the global order and hoped the shock of the pandemic had highlighted the importance of being “globalist, not nationalist”.

European capitals have been “swift to acknowledge their relief” at the prospect of a Biden government, said Constanze Stelzenmüller, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, but Europeans understand “perfectly well that Biden is not able to govern as a restorationist”.

Trade deals are up in the air

Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Britain did not have “the bandwidth” to conclude a trade deal with his country before the Brexit transition.

On prospects for a US-UK trade deal, Kim Darroch, former British Ambassador to the US, warned that “if we end up with a No Deal Brexit, or amends to the market bill, we can forget about a free trade deal”.

A Biden presidency would be a return of normalcy, said Samaila Zubairu, president and chief executive of the Africa Finance Corporation, who hoped this change would also bring new trade opportunities for Africa.

“We have skewed relationships in trade with the rest of the world and we are hoping that will change.”

Vaccine news lifted an otherwise gloomy economic outlook

Andrew Bailey, the Bank of England governor, said the news of a vaccine breakthrough was “very encouraging” for the UK economy.

The economic picture in general was stark. Bill Dudley, the former president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, said that while monetary policy had “done a tremendous job” it would not be as effective as it had been previously because interest rates were already so low, adding that the prospect of further fiscal stimulus ahead of the inauguration had diminished.

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“The economy is on a positive trajectory” in the US, said John C Williams, current Fed president, but “the large rise in Covid cases recently puts a question mark on the economy’s ability to weather this period”.

Central banks, including the Fed, are right to change the way they think about inflation objectives, said Agustín Carstens, general manager of the Bank for International Settlements. The Fed’s plans were “well designed and thought out”, but the challenge would be in the implementation and how markets respond.

Carmen Reinhart, chief economist at the World Bank, said the pandemic had been “pretty devastating in many dimensions” for emerging markets, and real recovery would be “a multiyear progress”.

Raghuram Rajan, former governor of India’s central bank, said India entered the pandemic with a fragile financial sector, but added that reforms could be a “silver lining” of the crisis and an opportunity to reinvigorate growth after the economic blow of the pandemic.

Tourism could take years to recover

Gillian Tans, chairwoman of Booking.com said it would “most likely take years, not quarters, before [the industry] is fully back to pre-Covid levels”. Customers want to feel safe and comfortable to travel, she said, and research suggested that they would probably take local trips first.

“There is a tremendous amount of pent up demand, which you can see in future bookings,” said Lisa Lutoff-Perlo, chief executive of Celebrity Cruises. “People are tired of living this way; people want to see the world.”

Tech will help the world build back better — if access can be increased

“If you don’t have a technology strategy, you are probably already failing, the pandemic has made this more apparent,” said Reid Hoffman, co-founder of LinkedIn.

“Imagine having to do this [remote work] without Zoom or the cloud infrastructure that runs a lot of the things that we do today,” said Alfred Lin, a partner at Sequoia Capital.

“The potential of AI helping people’s productivity and wellbeing is truly boundless,” said Fei-Fei Li, co-director, Institute for Human-Centered AI, Stanford University. “Every industry can be accelerated because of the help of big data and machine learning. This pandemic enabled us to see some of the possibility.”

However, “not everybody has the same access to bandwidth — that’s a big separation”, said Mr Lin.

In Latin America, for instance, during the pandemic citizens have adopted technology in “ways we have never seen”, said Luis Alberto Moreno, former president of the Inter-American Development Bank. “But 50 per cent of Latin American people do not have access to smartphones or are not connected.”

It is time to plan for long-term remote working

“Everybody’s used up that adrenaline that got us through the past six months,” said Nicola Mendelsohn, vice-president of Emea at Facebook, where 95 per cent of employees are still working remotely and most offices are closed.

“We are starting to think about what the world after this looks like. It’s an opportunity for people to look at how they want to work and how they want to live,” she said.

“People have reviewed how they live and are asking: ‘Why is it necessary to live in the centre of a city?’,” said Izumi Kobayashi, director at Mitsui & Co.

Employee wellbeing and mental health will be top priorities moving into phase 2 of the pandemic. “It’s important to check in on everybody and hear about how they are getting on, their work, their family,” said Susan Lund, a partner at McKinsey.

“Lots of things have got better, but we have to be careful about viewing it as a universally beneficial thing,” said Mark Read, chief executive of WPP. “You have got a responsibility to train people, and you can’t do all of that from home.”

Diversity is not an optional strategy

Attracting diverse talent and nurturing all employees is more important than ever, and it requires affirmative action, said Ursula Burns, a senior adviser at Teneo, and the former chair and chief executive of Xerox. “You have to literally go looking, to get out there. Particularly middle managers — it’s a responsibility of leadership across the company.”

The view of “white and male being the source of excellence only” would hold companies back, Ms Burns said. “These old habits, these old practices . . . [are] going to fail us if we don’t change.”

If you missed the Global Boardroom, all sessions are available to watch on demand here.

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