Davos: Change the world?

… or just network with the in-crowd? Ben Chu reports from the slopes

Oxfam recently produced an analysis showing that that the world's 100 richest individuals earned enough money in 2012 to end extreme poverty around the world four times over.

The charity concluded: "It is time our leaders reformed the system so that it works in the interests of the whole of humanity rather than a global elite."

Global elite? Did someone mention Davos?

As it happens, that select club of globe-trotting corporate titans and international powerbrokers gathers today for its annual meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF).

Some 2,500 company executives, heads of state, central bank chiefs, garlanded academics and a smattering of celebrities (Charlize Theron is on stardust-sprinkling duty this year) will gather for five days in a head-spinning succession of high-powered seminars and opulently catered parties.

So what's it all for? Well, there's no concrete objective. Davos does not produce a communiqué.

The WEF says its goal is "improving the state of the world". But there's no commitment on any of the participants to go back home and actually do anything. So is it all just hot air in a cold climate? Devotees insist not.

They argue that Davos offers a unique opportunity for the top brass of the business world and the planet's most influential politicians to get together in an informal setting to discuss the world's challenges.

So who's going to Davos this year? And what topics will the global elite be discussing?

Bankers and regulators

Davos has long been a bankers' playground, and this year is no different. Scores of senior representatives from the world's megabanks will be in attendance to lick their wounds after a cascade of scandals in 2012, from Libor-fixing to money laundering.

Some grand names stand out. Jamie Dimon of JP Morgan will be sitting on a panel, his first public appearance since being hit by a $10m (£6.3m) pay cut for failing to spot that one of his London traders was racking colossal losses. Lloyd Blankfein, the boss of Wall Street rival Goldman Sachs, will be speaking on a panel. The subject is an appropriate one for boss of the Vampire Squid: "competitiveness". John Hourican, the head of RBS's investment bank, is supposed to be attending, despite rampant rumours that he will be forced to carry the can for the majority taxpayer-owned bank's Libor manipulation.

The bankers' regulators, too, will be out in force. The incoming Bank of England Governor, Mark Carney, will be taking part in a session on Saturday. Perhaps he might spare a word of commiseration for Adair Turner, the chair of the Financial Services Authority, who was a disappointed contender for Threadneedle Street and another Davos attendee.

Both men can expect to be buttonholed by their commercial banker colleagues on the folly of imposing new capital requirements and regulations on the financial sector at a time when economies need bankers to turn on the lending taps.

The corporate titans

What environment could be more convivial for the head of a multinational business than multinational Davos?

Martin Sorrell, boss of the world's biggest advertising firm, WPP, will, as usual be stalking the hotels and conference centre halls. Cheryl Sandberg of Facebook will also make the trip, as will Muhtar Kent of Coca-Cola.

Executives are likely to swap notes over how best to handle the public anger over corporation-tax avoidance. Paul Polman of Unilever has called for business to embrace a more ethical approach. Mr Sorrell has sounded a similar note, saying that "doing good is good business". The largest corporate "do gooder" in history, Bill Gates, will be on hand to tell them how it's done.

Times are tough for the masters of business, but there is also a sense among some participants that things could be getting better. Share prices are picking up around the world. The US Congress veered away from the fiscal cliff. And the sizeable Chinese contingent at Davos will find themselves even more popular than usual now that the oriental giant seems to have dodged a hard economic landing.

The politicians

This time last year the great shadow hanging over Davos was the eurozone crisis. This year, largely thanks to last summer's intervention by the president of the European Central Bank, Mario Draghi, the threat of a break-up of the single currency has receded.

Mr Draghi will proffer his thoughts in a speech on Friday. The speech of the outgoing technocrat prime minister, Mario Monti, today will be carefully scrutinised. So will Angela Merkel's tomorrow. Will the German Chancellor strike a more hard-line note on a bailout for feckless southern Europeans after her party's surprise defeat in a Lower Saxony poll at the weekend?

David Cameron will also fly in tomorrow after making his great delayed speech on Britain's future in the European Union. How will the CEOs and continental politicians react to the Prime Minister's referendum promise? A thumbs down could really sour his après ski. George Osborne will be speaking on Thursday with his pre-release copy of the final quarter of 2012 GDP figures tucked in his breast pocket. Another hot topic will be unorthodox monetary policy.

Mr Carney has floated a nominal GDP target. Everyone will want to hear whether he drops any more hints.

The academics

Davos loves Nobel prize laureates. No fewer than 14 of them are attending this year, including big-name economists Joe Stiglitz and Christopher Pissarides. The big debating point looks likely to be the impact of austerity in the wake of the International Monetary Fund's (IMF) bombshell research last year suggesting it had underestimated the damaging effect of budget cuts. Christine Lagarde, managing director of the IMF, might push the case privately for a relaxation of scheduled cuts behind the scenes.

Less diplomatic, and more public, will be Larry Summers, the former US Treasury Secretary, who has long argued that governments – including our own – made a dreadful mistake by pivoting to austerity in 2010.

The great hedge-fund manager, George Soros, will also be liberally dispensing his poacher-turned-gamekeeper wisdom. And for those businessmen and women with a cultural hinterland, there will be talks from novelists Paulo Coelho and Henning Mankell.

So will minds be expanded? Might they even be changed? That's the Davos promise. The great pity is that there's no real way of testing whether it's true or not. Still, the canapés will be good. They always are.

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