All eyes on Davos

The January gathering of billionaires must find answers, writes Selwyn Parker


Every year the founder of the World Economic Forum, Klaus Schwab, draws up a highly intellectual agenda to focus the minds of the heads of state, Fortune 500 chief executives, billionaires and heads of charities who attend its annual meeting in Davos, high on the ski slopes of the Swiss mountains.

But generally, according to veterans of these five days of seminars, inspiring speeches, private conversations and back-slapping, most attendees ignore Schwab’s riding instructions.

Instead they stick to their own agenda, which is to get their money’s worth from the year’s most expensive conference, with furious networking, deal-making and profile-building. But for the 2012 version of this long-running event, the stakes have never been higher; as the global elite face what Schwab has labelled “The Great Transformation.” The big issue will be whether the world’s most influential people can make the difference that is expected of them.

So far their score is probably a pass, at best. Can Davos Man rise to the occasion?

Who is Davos Man?
A term coined by the late American political scientist Samuel Huntington in 1977 – just as the modern version of the meeting was taking shape – Davos Man is an elite individual dedicated to the advancement of his own interests and those of his fellows, rather than to the betterment of the world. As Huntington described them, such people “have little need for national loyalty, view national boundaries as obstacles that are thankfully vanishing, and see national governments as residues from the past whose only useful function is to facilitate the elite’s global operations.”

Come January, Davos Man needs to prove Huntington’s description wrong. As the globe’s power brokers, the 2,000-odd attendees have never been under more pressure to come up with answers to a towering set of global challenges. An old Europe facing a lost decade, the fading influence of America as the world’s economic powerhouse and moral leader, ruinous turmoil in currency markets, upheavals in the financial sector, sky-rocketing young unemployment throughout entire regions, actual and imminent collapse of dictatorships in North Africa and the Middle East: these are some of the cataclysmic issues that, whether they like it or not, have landed in the lap of the World Economic Forum.

So are they up to it? The atmosphere should help. This is purpose-designed as neutral ground. One of the genuine advantages of Davos compared with, say, a G20 meeting – with its grand-standing, politicking, protocol-conscious, head-of-state atmosphere – is that it’s the exact opposite. The only protocol is informality: slacks and jacket for men, jeans and whatever for women, are practically de rigueur. Heads of state attend, but only as individuals, without plane-loads of advisers.

Nor does grandstanding work well in a deliberately informal exchange of ideas. Besides, any attendee can simply fire through a request for a chat via the in-house computer system, and so can outsiders put a question to presidents and billionaires alike via YouTube. The most valuable intellectual property at Davos is the two-inch thick volume of the attendees that every arrival is given when they register.

And while attendance is not officially required at any of the seminars or 200-odd informal sessions, it’s frowned upon to spend the five days closeted in back rooms doing deals. Some show of public-spiritedness is considered part of the Davos obligation.

Intellectual firepower
But how much can be achieved in five days? For a start there will be plenty of financial and intellectual firepower present. According to Forbes magazine, no fewer than 69 billionaires from 20 countries attended last year’s event, and their combined value is likely to be much the same in 2012. In purely financial terms, they represent something like $427bn.

For security reasons the names of the VIP guests are not released until the last minute, but many would like to see a more convincing presence than hitherto from the Obama administration. So far the US president has sent only a token representation, quite unlike Davos fan Bill Clinton, who was the first incumbent president to make the trip to the wealthy little mountain resort.

Also notable by their absence are church leaders, who are outnumbered by businesspeople at a rough 100-to-one ratio. Union bosses are in much the same position.

Most of the billionaires will come from the US, followed by India, and probably Russia in third. Last year president Dmitry Medvedev had nine oligarchs in tow. Among the big names expected to attend again are Stephen Schwarzmann and Henry Kravis, founders of private equity giant KKR; hedge fund legend and philanthropist George Soros; Google founders Sergey Brin and Eric Schmidt; and India steel baron Lakshmi Mittal.

And Bill Gates, who will celebrate his 17th year, wouldn’t miss it. But as he has pointed out, today’s gatherings are very different from his first. “When I started going in 1990, the focus was on the wonders of technology, and the hot panels were the ones where engineers like myself would discuss how things would improve using technology,” he said in 2010.

That idealism has since been replaced by the realisation that technology hasn’t got anything like all the answers, and that we have arrived at a great transformation that requires much deeper answers than faster internet, dazzling software or iPhones.

On the bright side, some participants think they can see a deeper appreciation of the world’s problems than that displayed by the nerds of yesteryear. “I witnessed more honesty and straight talk between the private sector, multilateral agencies, governments and NGOs as they look to de-risk the planet,” said Mark Foster, a senior executive from consultancy Accenture, of the 2011 event.

However, if Davos is to establish itself as a forum of real importance, it will have to do better on these towering Richter-scale issues. Despite the presence of senior bankers, heads of state, the biggest investors, global consultancies and the requisite billionaires at the last two forums, none of the looming, post-financial crisis issues are any closer to a solution.