26 January 2009

Mood of sobriety and self-recrimination at Davos ~ FT

By Gillian Tett in London

Published: January 25 2009 19:17 | Last updated: January 25 2009 19:17

In recent years, Goldman Sachs has been renowned for hosting one of the hottest parties during the World Economic Forum’s glittering annual meeting in Davos. No longer.

This year, in a nod to the new mood of sobriety and self-recrimination, the US broker has quietly cancelled its party and sharply reduced its delegation to the event, which starts on Wednesday.

It is far from alone. John Thain was due to host a high-profile breakfast meeting on Friday in Davos – until he was unceremoniously ousted from his post at Merrill Lynch on Thursday, in the latest casualty of the financial crisis.

Lehman Brothers, which used to send a formidable delegation to the snowy resort, has also disappeared. Vikram Pandit, the embattled chief executive of Citigroup, has withdrawn this year. So has Howard Stringer, the CEO of Sony, the media and electronics group.

Such banking drop-outs are by no means universal. Jamie Dimon, head of JPMorgan Chase, remains confident and will host a party in Davos’s iconic “Piano Bar”. Barclays appears eager to press ahead with a glittering dinner in a mountain-top restaurant, despite its slumping share price.

However, the overall numbers are actually up this year – apparently because many business leaders and policy-makers are frantically searching for ways to exit the current mess and are keen to find ways to shape the new agenda, at a time when so much of the geopolitical order is in flux.

Moreover, as the Davos organisers are keen to stress, others are replacing the banking no-shows. More than 2,500 attendees are registered this year, more than ever before, including 1,400 business leaders. There are also 41 heads of state and government, almost double the previous record, including Gordon Brown, the UK prime minister, and Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor.

Some observers attribute that to companies having drawn up their travel plans before the economic slump hit. One senior financier admitted that his company might withdraw next year, though it would turn up this week. “The event has become such a production that we question the value of attending. It’s violently expensive,” he said.

Davos enthusiasts, though, insist that the current crisis has left many business leaders desperately searching for new intellectual compasses at a time when the boundaries between state and business are being redrawn. “This meeting promises to be one of the most important events in the Forum’s history,” enthused Klaus Schwab, head of the WEF.

Some business leaders and policy-makers also hope to use the gathering to extend their influence. Wen Jiabao, the Chinese premier, will be one high-profile attendee this year. So is Vladimir Putin, his Russian counterpart.

Nevertheless, the debates may be tough. In recent years the proceedings have propagated the idea that a cocktail of innovation, globalisation and free-market capitalism could deliver a better world. The financial crisis, though, has shattered confidence in those ideals.

Many of the Davos attendees appear determined to fight back. “We’ve had a globalised economy and markets over the past few years and that’s been brought into question given the financial crisis. But there is no turning back,” wrote Duncan Niederauer, CEO of NYSE Euronext on the Davos website. Michael L Ducker, president, international at FedEx said: “History warns us that raising trade barriers during times of economic anxiety will only fuel further domestic and international economic decline.”

Yet, the uncomfortable fact remains that some of those who will be in Davos this week are widely blamed for having created the current crisis – not least because they so notably failed to predict it. Two years ago, during the peak of the credit boom in January 2007, the mood at Davos was so exuberant that private-equity players were lauded as the new stars. Even last January, optimism was high that the financial crisis was short-lived. And this year’s event has already delivered one small embarrassment.

The organisers have billed this week’s meeting as “Shaping the Post-Crisis World”, since they assumed until recently that the turmoil would be over by now. “It’s a bit unfortunate, but maybe it is good to be positive,” one official at the WEF observed last week. It is a sentiment that many at the Swiss resort might like to share.

With additional reporting by Peter Thal Larsen and Andrew Edgecliffe Johnson

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2009

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