Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Davos Doldrums

Davos, Switzerland. Why does just the name conjure sickening images of Richard Branson in a shiny new ski outfit, maybe being lowered from a helicopter while juggling machetes? Oh yeah, because that's what happens; ever since 1971, world leaders have been meeting in this Swiss village to share ideas and promote capitalism. First the good news: the theme of this year's gathering is "Shaping the Post-Crisis World", meaning there's going to be an end to the crisis and a world to live in. The bad news: most of the people meeting are the very ones who have put us in the crisis to begin with!

Over 2,500 participants from 96 countries will gather in Davos for five days starting tomorrow. Over half are business leaders representing the 1,000 foremost companies from around the world and across economic sectors. More than 1,400 chief executives and chairpersons from the world’s leading companies are participating this year, the highest ever since the World Economic Forum was founded in 1971. Additionally, there will be 250 public figures, including 41 heads of state or government, 60 ministers, 30 heads or senior officials of international organizations and 10 ambassadors. Finally, more than 510 participants from civil society, including 50 heads or representatives of non-governmental organizations, 225 media leaders, 215 leaders from academic institutions and think tanks, 10 religious leaders of different faiths and 10 trade union leaders. We're talking about concentrated wealth and power.

When last they met in Davos a year ago the theme was "The Power of Collaborative Innovation". It seems like a pleasant memory now, doesn't it? Globalization and the financial masters were on the verge of lifting the world out of poverty by renewing their committment to the UN Millenium Development Goals - with a little prodding from Bono. Sure, the 'r' word was being bandied about, some mentioned the possibility of the US housing crisis spreading, but they we're just gathering storm clouds. Oh yeah, there was that little scandal involving the rogue French trader and $7.2 billion in losses breaking just then. Still, it wasn't enough to convince those gathered that a new way of regulating the financial system was necessary, self-regulation was still the best way to go according to 2/3 of the attendees. Sure credit was tightening, but the capital of the Sovereign Wealth Funds (SWF) of the oil rich countries in the Middle East and Russia, along with the economic engines of China and India and the decoupling of the world and US economies would be more that enough to keep the global economy growing. Why, there was even talk of Russia joining the WTO by the end of the year!

A year on and the world has changed. Financial chaos has descended upon us, Russia is the bad guy again and it's being whispered that even the Chinese economy is beginning to follow the rest of the world's example of the past 12 months. Trade barriers are beginning to pop up as nations start to feel the pinch of double digit economic contraction. America has elected a new president and is printing money as fast as it can to slow the hemorrhaging, while Europe has seen everything from national bankruptcies to street riot protests. So, this year we're being told that we'll see a much more sober Davos gathering. They'll be no Lehman Brothers delegation, Goldman Sachs has cancelled their legendary party and of course Merrill Lynch's John Thane's power-breakfast scheduled for this Friday has been tossed in the garbage (no not the $1,200 one). More interesting than who will be there, the Angela Merckels and Gordon Browns, should be the conspicuous absence of conspicuousness. No Bono, Claudia Schiffer or Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt; even many Asian businessmen will be absent due to the timing coinciding with the Lunar New Year. Other no shows will be B. Ramalinga Raju, former chairman of India's Satyam Computer Services Ltd., who was to have been on a panel this year at the Forum, but instead is in jail, arrested in connection with a massive fraud. One banker scheduled to attend who won't be is Edgar de Picciotto, chairman of Union Bancaire Privée who lost big, to the tune of $700 million, for clients by investing in Bernard Madoff's Ponzi scheme.

Speaking of conspicuous absences of conspicuousness, whatever happened to the legions of protesters that such economic summits once seemed to draw? Maybe we thought that Bono and Bill Gates were taking care of everyone's interests, so we just left it to them. Perhaps we've entered the post anti-globalization age, where we simply accept the new economic order of private profits and socialized losses. Most of the attendees in Davos have enriched themselves while driving the world economy into the ground, leaving a bill that tax-payers are now expected to pick up. The greed of the eighty's left us with such legacies as Michael Douglas in Wall Street or Tom Wolfe's The Bonfire of the Vanities: A Novel. This time all we may have to show for it are memories of Russian oligarch billionaires' drunken parties and bankers hitting on Naomi Campbell. One thing's for sure this year in Davos, many of the bankers are staying home but more political leaders are going to be there, 40 heads of state, up from 27 last year, including the first Chinese leader to attend, Premier Wen Jiabao. German novelist Thomas Mann called Davos "The Magic Mountain" back when it was a center for tuberculosis cures, I somehow doubt it's where this new world order of politicians running the show will find the miracle medicine to end the financial crisis.