Will Davos be a damp squib?

There'll be no Obama, Brown or Bono at next week's economic forum, but does it matter?
  • @_seanogrady

He won't be there next week – there is the small matter of the State of the Union address and the US budget to attend to – but Barack Obama has at least given the 40th World Economic Forum in Davos something meaty to talk about. Just as well. This annual gabfest in the snow often finds itself drifting into a blizzard of vagueness and schlepping through slushy platitudes on its way to its inconclusions. But the radical banking reform package outlined by the US President on Thursday promises to set the agenda for the discussion sessions, dinners and informal gatherings that have been taking place at this otherwise sleepy Swiss skiing resort since 1971.

The official theme of this year's event – "Rethink, Redesign, Rebuild" – has been somewhat pre-empted by Obama's initiatives, but also made vastly more relevant. It is fortunate that the bankers, industrialists, economists, politicians and regulators gathered for their yearly attempt to find "space to think" will have their combined brain power trained on the "too big to fail" issue.

Nudged by the influence of the former Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker, a friend and ally of the Governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King, we are at last loosening the grip of the bankers on the world economy's windpipe. Sadly, Mr Volcker and Mr King will be absent from this year's proceedings (no senior official from the Bank of England will be there), but President Obama's economic adviser, Larry Summers, will. Mr Summers is strongly rumoured to have opposed Mr Volcker's ideas, so it will be interesting to hear him defend a policy not entirely of his own making.

Yet Mr Summers will be the only senior member of the Obama administration to attend for the second year running (last year they were delayed by their Senate confirmation hearings). There will also be a further thinning out of the ranks of the investment bankers this year – Lloyd Blankfein, chief executive of Goldman Sachs, won't be present, for example.

Politicians and regulators may still be wary of being seen with bankers quaffing cocktails and frolicking on the ski slopes. Gordon Brown has his Afghanistan conference next week to host – he at least enjoys Davos, possibly because they offer him the respect he so badly lacks at home. Bono, a regular advocate for the world's poorest, won't be turning up. Last year the Chinese president came, but this year we will have to make do with vice-president, Li Keqiang. And so on.

Reports of the death of "Davos Man" – the transnational, free- marketeering master of the universe – are premature. Any event that boasts among its participants the following leaders cannot be dismissed: Josef Ackermann of Deutsche Bank, Bob Diamond of Barclays Capital, Stephen Green of HSBC and Stephen Schwarzman of Blackstone, will defend the world of finance as well as any group.

Akio Toyoda of Toyota, Lakshmi Mittal of ArcelorMittal, Irene Rosenfeld of Kraft, Eric Schmidt of Google, Tony Hayward of BP, and Cynthia Carroll of Anglo American represent between them a fair chunk of global GDP and the "real economy". Not to mention: Rupert Murdoch, Nicolas Sarkozy, Peter Mandelson, Morgan Tsvangirai, John Kerry, Jean-Claude Trichet, Shimon Peres and President Lula of Brazil. Bill Clinton, UN Special Envoy to Haiti, will be there to nudge the consciences of the rich and powerful. Niall Ferguson, Nouriel Roubini and Joseph Stiglitz will stimulate us.

Even in its more subdued state, this international parliament of ideas is not short of influence, nor far-sightedness. George Osborne and David Cameron will be there, presumably doing their best not to be at the same drinks parties as Alistair Darling, David Miliband and Douglas Alexander. Blair and Brown were invited in 1996, you'll note.

Everyone at Davos in 2007 was asking, "Will there be a recession?" In 2008 it was, "Will there be a slump?" Last year it was, "Will there be a recovery?" Now, at least, it is "What kind of recovery?" Even the UK, the only major economy still to be officially mired in recession, will be able to declare a return to growth when the GDP figures for the end of 2009 are published next Tuesday. It will not be a moment, even in Davos, to break out the Bolly, but it may allow British participants to look the rest of the world in the eye.

Davos has, over the years, evolved. Difficult as it may be to believe, Arthur Scargill was a participant in 1983, and it makes one wonder about today. The declining profile of the bankers at Davos is another symptom of a seachange in democratic opinion to finance – analogous to that which overwhelmed the trade unions three decades ago. Then, as now, the public grew weary of an interest group that had become over-mighty and ruthlessly pursued its own interests with little regard for the wider community; who paid dearly for its excesses and blackmailing ways.

The great irony of Davos is that its founder, the German economist Klaus Schwab, always wanted the Forum to embrace the "stakeholder" ideal. For a long time, when bankers were the undisputed masters of the universe, mere lip service was paid to that cuddly ideal. Events – and politics – are pushing the financial community towards a new realism and responsibility.

This year, the Davos organisers have a new rule – apparently to be strictly enforced by the Swiss police – that only cars that emit a modest 230g of CO2 per kilometre, or less, will be permitted into the town. Gas guzzling SUVs and limos will be redirected to a park'n'ride. It is a small, symbolic change, though greatly to be welcomed by those of us sometimes choked in the cold, sharp, petrol-fumed air as we dodged our way through the VIP transports. There will still be sumptuous parties – Japan Night is one highlight this year – and displays of intellectual brilliance by Nobel Prize winners. But times, as Obama has demonstrated with such dramatic force, are changing.

Apologies: Conspicuous by their absence

It is more a question of who won't be at Davos than who will be this year.

Glam is out, for a start. Memories of Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt participating in the World Economic Forum (just think about that sentence for a moment) can still make Davos organisers wince with embarrassment.

The brief, but spectacularly daft, flirtation with Hollywood is well and truly over, and this year even Bono – actually a much more serious and useful figure than the usual celebrity – will be skipping the event, for the second year running.

Gordon Brown, whose genuine financial statesmanship lends him a much better reputation abroad than he has at home, will be busy in London fixing Afghanistan.

Still, we will have Peter Mandelson instead, who is always a pleasure and always liable to have a little fun, both on the dancefloor and in the conference chamber. Mervyn King, the Governor of the Bank of England, never attends, which seems a pity as some of his ideas about breaking up the banks are gaining international support (they were always popular among the economists at Davos). Perhaps he doesn't enjoy mixing with overpaid Wall Street types and overblown politicians.

But the most notable thinning is in the phalanxes of investment bankers who used to dominate things. They are still around, and they don't look poor, but the swagger is gone. Good.