Economic summit: When Davos freezes over...

It is usually an opportunity for the rich and the powerful to pat each other on the back. Not this year, reports Sean O'Grady

The annual World Economic Forum, kicks off today in the pleasant Swiss ski resort of Davos. For the past three decades and more, the elite of the world's business financial and political elites – about 2,500 movers and shakers, plus another 5,000 hangers on and media – have gathered here to discuss the state of the world, do some deals and take in a little skiing.

In the boom years, the evening parties became more lavish, the noise of mutual congratulation louder, and you could almost sniff the arrogance polluting the crisp, alpine air. The triumph of capitalism and its promise of never-ending prosperity was celebrated, often none too subtly, over canapés and champagne.

In the good times, none were more sure of themselves than the bankers. They came to Davos in ever-increasing numbers to see each other and to be seen. Not now.

This year, it seems, they are too ashamed to show their faces – and Davos will have to do without their telling the rest of us how they got the world into the crisis in the first place. At the last moment, Bob Diamond, president of Barclays Capital, one of the highest earning bankers in the world, dropped out.

"Bob is no longer able to attend Davos," Barclays said in an email to Reuters. A spokesman declined to provide a reason but said Barclays Capital chairman Marcus Agius and others from the bank would still attend.

Mr Diamond is just the latest in a growing list of no-shows. Many other bankers, especially the American ones, are avoiding the glitz of the Davos slopes this year. Those who have dropped out at the last moment include Citigroup chief executive Vikram Pandit and former Merrill Lynch chief John Thain. Other colourful and high profile ex-masters of the universe such as Dick "The Gorilla" Fuld, chairman and chief executive officer of the now defunct Lehman Brothers, and Sir Fred "The Shred" Goodwin , ousted in November as boss of the Royal Bank of Scotland Group, will also be unavailable for the various sessions on "what went wrong". Indeed, RBS, now 70 per cent owned by the British taxpayer, will not be sending anyone this year.

And, while you're never going to go short of a glass of bubbly here, the scale of entertainment has been trimmed, just like the banks' balance sheets.

Davos hoteliers report that those who once ordered Dom Pérignon and Krug have scaled back to the somewhat cheaper Laurent-Perrier.

Goldman Sachs has quietly dropped its usual extravagent bash. Few public figures seem willing to allow themselves to be seen with a drink in their hand and a grin on their face while back home people are being thrown out of work and their houses repossessed. Some of the parties may be much more exclusive affairs, for fear any stray blogger or journalist may witness such scenes opf relative excess.

Perhaps for different reasons, Davos will also be bereft of Bono this year. Even as the financial crisis was gathering pace last year participants such as Condoleezza Rice and Gordon Brown still had to be publicly accountable to the U2 frontman for progress, or lack of it, on the UN's Millennium Development Goals.

This year, apparently, Bono is finishing an album, but you get the impression that concerns about world poverty and climate change – two of the indulgences that occupied Davosians when they assumed that capitalism's difficulties had been solved for good – were never going to get much of a look-in at the 2009 event.

Not even Bono could raise their profile when market capitalism faces such immediate threats. The violence and destruction in Gaza also casts a pall over proceedings. A session entitled "meet the peacemakers" starring UN Middle East envoy Tony Blair has disappeared from the schedules.

Bill Gates, nowadays appearing at the Forum as the world biggest philanthropist rather than its most famous geek, has hinted at the pessimism felt by many in the aid world.

He said: "I believe that the wealthy have a responsibility to invest in addressing inequity. This is especially true when the constraints on others are so great. Otherwise, we will come out of the economic downturn in a world that is even more unequal, with greater inequities in health and education and fewer opportunities for people to improve their lives."

Still, Mr Gates will be here, helping to ensure that this small corner of the Alps has concentrated in its environs a substantial majority of the planet's power and wealth.

The truth is that even such a gathering as this is unlikely to find any answers to the economic crisis. No magic solutions will emerge from the picturesque mountains here. But, as Downing Street prepares to host the G20 summit in London in April, Davos should help Gordon Brown to frame the agenda for that meeting.

He will have an opportunity to canvass views from financiers and representatives of other governments on how we get out of the mess.

"Shaping the Post-Crisis World" is the slogan for the 2009 WEF. The trouble is, no one quite knows how or when that such a post-crisis world will arrive.

World Economic Forum: Who's who

No shows

In previous years, bankers like John Thain might have rubbed shoulders with rock stars like Bono. This time, discredited former Merrill Lynch boss Thain – famed for spending $1,400 on a rubbish bin – is lying low, and Bono, perhaps mindful rock stars seem a mite frivolous right now, conveniently has an album to record. They're not the only stayaways. There will be no Brad Pitt or Angelina Jolie, or Richard Fuld – who took $186.6m in pay as Lehman Brothers CEO in the three years before it went bust. Barclays president Bob Diamond has dropped out for reasons unknown; Vikram Pandit, CEO of ailing Citigroup, and Goldman Sachs chief Lloyd Blankfein won't be there either. Another A-list absentee, who is a little busy: President Barak Obama.

Turning up

As the money men wane, politicians are reasserting their grip: 41 heads of state and government, including our own Gordon Brown, are attending, compared with 21 last year. They're joined by entrepreneurs like Richard Branson and Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page. Among economists will be Nouriel Roubini, the New York professor who was one of few to predict the crunch. For excitement, look to the reunited motley crew of Peter Mandelson, George Osborne, Nat Rothschild, and Oleg Deripaska.