Jeremy Warner: Where have all the bankers gone?

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The world's elite talking shop certainly has plenty to discuss this year. More so than perhaps any other event, Davos has come to epitomise the free market, globalisation agenda, yet unfettered global financial markets now stand accused of having brought the world economy to its knees. Uppermost on participants' minds this year – where did it all go wrong, and how to fix it? And perhaps too, some painful inner reflection. Were we not partly, or even wholly, to blame? There will certainly be no shortage of opinion among the wealthy, powerful and brainy gathered in this Swiss alpine retreat for the World Economic Forum annual meeting, but will there be answers?

One regular Davos constituency conspicuous by its absence this year is the American investment banking community.

Even if they had the answers, nobody would listen. Turning up en masse in Davos is one PR disaster they have wisely decided to avoid.

One particular no show is Bob Diamond, head of Barclays Capital, the investment banking arm of Barclays Bank. A regular fixture of these events, not attending will for him be like missing New Year. Until only a few days ago, he was on the programme as a keynote speaker.

Officially, cancellation is blamed on "pressure of work", but given the climate of opinion, it would not have been a difficult decision to make. Snowballs would have been the least of the missiles thrown at him. The same is true of John Thain, unceremoniously fired last week as chief executive of Merrill Lynch after paying out billions in bonuses even as his bank was being rescued by the American taxpayer.

Even Davos, for years a lucrative playground of these one time "masters of the universe" has seemingly turned against Wall Street and the City. Instead, the big guns this year are the politicians and the regulators. They have moved in where the financial markets have moved out. Are they any more likely to provide answers?

That, perhaps, would be presuming too much of a meeting which is still at root primarily a business networking conference, albeit the Rolls Royce of such events. Yet the significance of Davos goes beyond that of insubstantial partying and intellectual grazing.

More so this year than ever, it is likely to prove a useful incubator of ideas and initiatives of true significance. Reform of global economic and financial regulation will be the key theme of the G20 meeting in London in April. Much of the work establishing common cause between nations, regulators and regulated will begin here in Switzerland this week.

The investment bankers may be gone, but the hard work of sorting out the mess has just begun. Davos is nothing if not supremely adaptable. The mission of salvaging something of the globalisation agenda from the wreckage of the past year will only give the event renewed purpose.