Allianz CFO on Megatrends Facing the West 'Enormous Forces Are Affecting the World'
The global elite are meeting in Davos this week to discuss the key challenges in the post-crisis world. SPIEGEL ONLINE spoke with Paul Achleitner, the long-time CFO of insurance giant Allianz, about major global trends, including digitalization, our hurried "Blackberry society," the rise of Asia and how the West needs to respond.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Mr. Achleitner, you've attended the World Economic Forum in Davos for more than 15 years. The theme of this year's forum is "Shared Norms for the New Reality," which sounds a bit like a new management book by the Dalai Lama. What exactly is up for discussion?
Paul Achleitner: The problem with our Blackberry society is that hardly anyone has time anymore to have an unhurried discussion about the long-term developments that will change our lives. The World Economic Forum offers an opportunity to discuss more than just what's happening right now.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: You've predicted that we'll soon divide the world into two periods: "before the financial crisis" and "after the financial crisis." Is the phase we're currently in really as historically significant as the birth of Jesus Christ?
Achleitner: Although it won't necessarily mean a new calendar system, we'll have a new way of calculating time. Enormous forces are affecting the world, and we can't possibly overestimate their importance. These include demographic developments, climate change, digitalization and the rise of Asia. And then there's the most important one: the end of a life lived on credit. We must finally free ourselves from debt.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Politicians have been saying the same thing for decades -- but without results.
Achleitner: This issue affects not only politics, but also companies and private individuals. We've financed the last 30 years' worth of growth on credit. In 1980, there was as much debt in the world as there was equity capital; today, there is three and a half times as much debt as savings. We need to reverse this trend.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: What do your children say when you tell them debt is bad? Is it better for them to save now and pay for the things they want later with their own money?
Achleitner: Debt is not intrinsically bad. But I make clear to my children that they should only borrow as much as they will be able to pay back.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: What will be the consequences if your prediction is right and the debt era ends?
Achleitner: Since loans are getting more expensive and there's less money available, we're seeing a commensurate decline in growth. Higher costs and lower growth, in turn, translate into lower profits. Figuratively speaking, in the future, we won't be able to run as far or jump as high as we used to.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: You've been the chief financial officer at Allianz, the Munich-based international insurance giant, since 2000, which makes you responsible for 440 billion ($600 billion) in assets. Do you plan on somehow preparing your stockholders for lower rates of return?
Achleitner: No, it's completely legitimate for a company to continue striving for growth and higher profits. But business activities have to be conducted in a sustainable manner.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: References to sustainability are usually little more than empty words. They typically involve one group pointing its finger at another and saying: "We'll continue doing what we've been doing, but you need to change."
Achleitner: No, that's not necessary for Allianz, nor is it for the majority of German companies. When it comes to most global challenges, such as reducing greenhouse gas emissions, these companies behave in exemplary fashion.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: You also sit on the supervisory boards of Bayer, RWE and Daimler, which gives you some say over what happens at three of Germany's largest corporations. Do you grade the management performance of these companies based on the measures they take to combat climate change?
Achleitner: I'm not at liberty to share any details about what happens on these boards. But I can say that, everywhere you look, a whole lot is happening when it comes to this issue. Not a single company has failed to adopt concrete measures for reducing CO2 emissions or to address the issue of how it will obtain raw materials in the future.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: It's always important to set a good example. At some point, the first "one liter car" -- a car that can travel 100 kilometers on a single liter of gas (282 mpg) -- will make its market debut. When that day comes, will you trade in your company car?
Achleitner: No, but my cars have been getting increasingly eco-friendly.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: If cars that used to need 20 liters to travel 100 kilometers (12 mpg) now only need 10 liters (24 mpg), does it mean we've become sufficiently eco-conscious?
Achleitner: Sure. Though a lot still needs to happen, we're at least going in the right direction. And every company would be well-advised to join this trend.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: When you fly, to you participate in carbon offset programs?
Achleitner: No, I don't believe in paying for a clear conscience. In the debate over the effects of climate change, we should give more weight to pragmatism than professions of faith.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: In addition to debt relief and climate change, you've also identified, as you've dubbed it, the "southeast shift." How will the rise of Asia affect Germany?
Achleitner: I'd first like to mention one thing: For more than 3,000 years, China and India accounted for half of the world's economic output. But then the Industrial Revolution gave North America and Europe 150 golden years. If you take the long-term perspective, our economic dominance has been more of an exception than the rule.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: If that was supposed to be reassuring, it wasn't.
Achleitner: What we make out of the rise of China and India is up to us. We shouldn't make light of our situation by saying, for example, that Asia has an army of low-wage laborers to thank for its economic boom. There are also millions of highly motivated and extremely well-educated young people there. The heads of leading American universities say that if they selected applicants based on grades alone, their student bodies would be 100 percent Asian.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: That's not a particularly heartening statement either.
Achleitner: If we make the necessary improvements to our schools and universities, I believe our young people can keep up. Still, there are two other megatrends contributing to Asia's rise: demographic development and digitalization. If we react to these factors in the right way, the renaissance of China and India shouldn't pose a threat to us.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Let's start with demographics.
Achleitner: Germany's population is getting older and older and smaller and smaller. To be able to finance our welfare system over the long term, we need more women in the workforce, more children and more immigrants.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: That sounds reasonable. It's just that we're having fewer and fewer children, we aren't so keen on immigration, and we're still a long way from achieving a work-family balance.
Achleitner: That's precisely the problem. We should finally stop talking and start acting.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Regarding the second issue, how is digitalization changing the world?
Achleitner: Everything that can be digitalized, will be. What's more, every piece of information is available everywhere in the world at the same time. We take advantage of this, for example, by sending X-rays to India to be examined overnight. In the future, work won't only be done where it's cheapest, but also where it's done best. This means that more and more Asian companies will be drawing on German know-how.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Granted, there are certain economic advantages that come with having everything available around the globe at the same time. But how does this affect our society?
Achleitner: When every media outlet in the world receives the same news item at the same second, fewer and fewer journalists will take the time to double-check the information because doing so would mean someone else gets the news out faster. After that, hardly anyone will know whether the information was true. You can also see this kind of unconsidered reaction to quick stimuli from a constantly growing flood of information among stock-market traders, business executives and politicians. I tend to doubt this behavior really leads to better decisions.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: These days, do children's Facebook friends know more about them than their parents?
Achleitner: I don't think so. A Facebook message will never be able to replace face-to-face interaction. The more important point is that Facebook and other social networking sites are bringing together spheres that used to be separate. People no longer have private and public lives; the line between the two is becoming blurred.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Most of the things shared on Facebook are harmless, but WikiLeaks provides a forum for publishing classified information. In the 21st century, is there still such a thing as trust?
Achleitner: Everything that individuals ever say or write can be used against them at a later point. And the worst part about it is that these things are generally taken out of context. That's not a pleasant thought. Our society has suffered a dramatic loss of trust, but it can't be blamed on digitalization alone.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: What consequences will this have?
Achleitner: I can't say what the long-term consequences of this loss of trust will be. Perhaps it will turn out to be the most serious change in the 21st century. Or perhaps everything will level off. But, from our current perspective, the consequences seem drastic.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Is it possible to hold confidential conversations at the World Economic Forum in Davos?
Achleitner: Of course. In the long term, though, what would really build confidence is if we took the time in Davos not only to really understand these trends, but also to find good solutions to them thereafter.
Interview conducted by Sven Böll