Interview: Steve Forbes

The Forbes family name has been synonymous with publishing, business and entrepreneurism for almost a century. Spearheading the empire and overseeing its expansive list of international magazines, investment newsletters and online companies is Steve Forbes, Chairman and Editor-in-Chief of Forbes Media

This October will see Steve Forbes in Dubai for the Forbes Global CEO Conference, now in its 12th successful year. Ahead of his trip, Forbes took time out to speak to Vision about his thoughts on global politics and economics – topics to be debated by the 400-strong executives, decision-makers and thought-leaders who are set to attend the high-powered convention in the emirate

What are your expectations of next month’s Forbes Global CEO Conference?
These forums are wonderful, not only for the speakers, panellists and the content – but also the networking people do between sessions. The brainstorming goes into very high gear at these get-togethers and I wish we could get a cut or a fee for all the things that are stimulated by these conferences! [Laughs.]

As a frontier market, why is the UAE, and Dubai specifically, a fitting venue for the event?
Dubai vividly demonstrates entrepreneurship – it has always been a trading region and has lived by its entrepreneurial wits for centuries. Given its location, being a hub between Europe the Middle East, the Gulf and Asia – not to mention North America – it seemed to be an ideal setting. It is an excellent place to hold a conference of this type because Dubai exemplifies the ‘can-do’ spirit that we think is needed in the global economy.

What will your address on the inaugural day touch upon?
I will be touching upon our [the United States] elections, which will be imminent, and the changes in economic policy in the US and around the world that are going to come in 2013. With Europe, for example, we will be looking at how that crisis is avoidable and why there is no reason why it should ‘go off the cliff’.

How is Forbes Middle East faring, following its re-launch in Dubai last year?
It’s moving along. One of the things I think governments [in the region] are focusing on is ‘how do we get our economies moving again?’. And one of the things we always emphasise here, and I’ve been emphasising this for a long time, is to avoid the prescriptions from the International Monetary Fund which always tells countries to “raise taxes and cheapen your money.” Instead they should look at success stories like Singapore, New Zealand and Turkey in terms of what they have done to revive their economies

What does Forbes magazine’s motto ‘The Capitalist Tool’ mean in this post-financial crisis world?
What it has always meant; Forbes has always appealed to entrepreneurs, people who want to build things, expand things, start things. The entrepreneurial class, despite the crisis, continues to grow around the world – the vibrancy of the global economy is obviously not what it was four years ago, but this is a temporary halt. Forbes, and I think most of the people who visit and read us, profoundly believes in free markets, opportunity, creativity and innovation; turning scarcity into abundance.

How can we make capitalism more sustainable? 
By having a government that recognises its role as providing an environment for entrepreneurial creativity to flourish. That means not having massive regulations, not overspending, a simple tax regime with low tax rates – or as in the Gulf, no income taxes. It also means making it easy for people to set up legal businesses. So, government restraint in terms of its size and spending with sensible rules of the road will see economies flourish.

Tell us about the future of traditional publishing and how digital media plays into your business model going forward?
We’ve integrated Forbes magazine and Forbes.com and when you come to work for us, you work for both. Journalists of the future have to master both platforms. Forbes magazine is doing well in terms of circulation and readership – it has never been better, and online we’re going off the charts! In July, usually a slow month, we had 31 million unique visitors. Our traffic has grown 60 -70% year-over-year.

How is the new economic climate being reflected in your ‘rich lists’?
In 2009 you saw a decline in the number of people on the global rich list. That started to change in 2010 and 2011 but the characteristics remained the same. And there are more people from emerging countries such as China, Indonesia, India, and the Gulf states. One of the reasons why we are very optimistic about Forbes’s future is that the entrepreneurial class around the world is growing, and that’s our audience.

The Middle East & Africa is lagging behind The Americas, Asia Pacific, Europe and the United States in this year’s ‘Billionaires List’, are there indicators pointing to a change in 2013?
What you’re starting to see is things happening, particularly in Africa. Billionaires are starting to rise up.
I think if those countries continue their liberalising trend that will continue. And in the Gulf states, there’s no lack of entrepreneurial activity, so as the economies expand entrepreneurship grows, it would be no surprise to see it reflected in the rich list.

Having entered the Republican primaries for President of the United States in 1996 and 2000, are you tempted to run again?
I see myself as an agitator now, not an office-seeker!

With the US Presidential election on the horizon, how do you gauge the current tenor of the debate between the Democrats and Republicans?
I think that it underscores the stark contrast of this election between ‘big government’ [the Democrats] and freedom/free markets [the Republicans], between rigidity and creativity, between scarcity and abundance, between empowerment and dependence. For me, big government means scarcity and stifling entrepreneurial spirits.

What would a Republican win mean for US, and in turn global equity markets, in the immediate and longer term?
I think it will be positive, despite the usual ups and downs – just like you saw in the 80s and 90s. After the terrible decade in the 70s, Ronald Reagan came to office and made some bold changes, as [Paul] Ryan and [Mitt] Romney wish to do. As a result the US economy vigorously grew again and other countries adopted similar proposals on cutting tax rates, privatising assets and deregulation.Within a few years after Reagan took office 50 countries reduced their tax rates, so I think you will see positive changes globally, particularly in Japan and Europe.

What are the biggest headwinds to global growth next year?
One is the unstable dollar. It is disruptive and makes it very hard to do things. 

What were the most important lessons to have learned from the global economic downturn?
When governments misbehave we face disaster. We never would have had, for example, the housing, commodity or other bubbles if the Federal Reserve hadn’t printed so much money. When the Fed misbehaves, other central banks follow in its wake to varying degrees. Lesson two is that people, individuals and entrepreneurs create wealth not governments.