This year it took 900 Swiss policemen and countless rolls of barbed wire to keep protesters at bay. But once again, about 2,500 business, government and academic leaders gathered in this Alpine resort for the annual World Economic Forum, an officially non-profit organisation which gently strokes their egos and taps their wallets while making them feel quite pleased about letting it happen. The attendees' declared mission: to ponder the global fate and find ways of making it better. The real goals for many: to network with useful contacts and discover what they should worry about in the year ahead. Conference topics ranged from clinical depression to outer space. But there was much more concern about the United States. With its untested new administration and a faltering economy, the US struck many as a nation which might bring them unwanted trouble in the coming months. That is because European, Japanese and Chinese participants all agreed the world had found no substitute as its main engine of growth. So if the US economy turned sour, the others cannot help but follow to an uncomfortable degree. They probably went home with a sense of relief. Two clear messages emerged from conference talk: the George W. Bush administration will be more competent and less reckless than many had feared, while the US economy should be growing again quite nicely by the time the year comes to a close, even if the next six months are a bit tough. 'I have long felt the US needed to correct some internal and external imbalances,' said Laurent Fabius, French finance minister, 'but we do not have to be pessimistic [about the outlook] and I am not'. This was a view endorsed by his German counterpart, Hans Eichel. So too agreed such oft-opposed analysts as Martin Feldstein, once chief economic advisor to Ronald Reagan, and Laura Tyson, who was the same for Bill Clinton. They shared several conclusions. Among them: US interest rates can come down considerably if more stimulus is needed. Budget surpluses and low inflation permit great fiscal experiments. There will be no severe credit crunch despite concerns about rising debt. The productivity impact of the new high-technology economy has not ended even if falling Nasdaq share prices might suggest otherwise. And the Bush administration wants to act decisively - and will. As outgoing US Treasury Secretary Larry Summers said, the new administration has 'room to manoeuvre [and] the US economy is healthy', despite valid concerns about huge current account deficits and high oil prices. This does not mean the US economy lacks problems or that success is guaranteed. For example, many of the US politicians and economists on hand said Mr Bush would not only get his proposed US$1.6 trillion tax cut, but perhaps more - too much more. They predict a fiscally unsound congressional 'feeding frenzy' once an actual bill is under consideration. 'It may be more and faster than proposed,' said representative Jim Leach, a worried Republican who would prefer to keep some limits in place. Ms Tyson, among others, worried that excessive tax cuts would end the Clinton-era policy of fiscal discipline, which she helped install. That could endanger plans to pay down the national debt and revise finances of the social security [pension] system before demographic changes create severe cash problems, and perhaps without raising the low US savings rate. The longer-term risks include a possible need for renewed deficit spending, which could lead to renewed inflation, higher interest rates and global consequences. But a muted optimism about the global economy held sway. 'A recession will be avoided,' said Stanley Fischer, first deputy managing director of the International Monetary Fund, even though a slowdown does exist. He predicted worldwide growth of 3.5 per cent this year, down from last year's 4.2 per cent. The one big nation that earned persistent criticism was Japan. Although Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori travelled 30 hours to deliver a 30-minute upbeat speech about imminent recovery, many found his message imprecise and unconvincing. Even Tokyo officials conceded this year's growth at best would remain well below the 2 per cent rate, not enough to do much for global economic health. As Mr Fischer noted, the world needed a bigger Japanese contribution, but he did not expect to see it soon. Japan's fiscal and monetary conditions leave little room for policy manoeuvring, and an overdue economic restructuring continues to come slowly. Mr Summers was blunter. He said Japan's nominal growth rate remained near zero, and 'it would be naive' to expect a breakthrough thanks to improved telecommunications or other items cited by Mr Mori as proof that problems of the so-called 'lost decade' were nearly over. Europeans were among the meeting's optimists. They forecast 3 per cent growth for the European Community, and listed economic restructuring and tax cuts (in France, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands, for example) as factors which should keep the good times rolling. However, many Americans tweaked them for restructuring too slowly, and Mr Summers said it bothered him to hear a 3 per cent growth rate boasted about as exceptionally fine when it should be considered about normal. Though Americans got off lightly on the growth front, the strong dollar's prospects seem less rosy. There was a widespread belief that it would fall against the euro during the coming year, with many predicting a decline near the 10 per cent mark. This was said to reflect internal changes in the EU economy, plus the euro's growing international acceptance for financing purposes. However, European central bankers insisted that a desire for price stability, not for a strong euro, conditioned their policies. 'We never had any ambition to have a currency to rival the dollar,' said Otmar Issing, chief economist at the European Central Bank. But none seemed displeased to see a successful rivalry emerging. In the end, though, the persistent downgrading of recession talk was dominant. With a resilient US and a strong Europe, plus Latin America and China likely to expand at 6 per cent or better, many delegates found the reassurance they sought - that any immediate economic bumpiness will not last long. And though their purses were lighter by the time they left Davos, that alone may have made the trip worthwhile.