It’s telling that Davos is breaking records this year: with the highest-ever number of CEOs and company chairpersons (more than 1,400) and more high-profile politicians than at any time since the annual gathering began at the Swiss mountain resort in 1971. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, British Premier Gordon Brown, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Chinese premier Wen Jiabao are among the leaders in attendance at the World Economic Forum this week.
Alcoa chief executive Klaus Kleinfeld said Wednesday that there has never been a more critical time for business and political leaders to come together. “How do we get the engine of the world economy started up?” asks Kleinfeld, whose company recently reported a fourth-quarter $1.2 billion loss amid dramatic declines in the price of aluminum. Kleinfeld, for one, has organized more than two dozen one-on-one meetings with customers, politicians and peers over the next few days. “There’s no place on this earth to see more people in such a short time,” he says. “It’s of incredible value to me.”
And who is coming from the Obama Administration? Valerie Jarrett, the Assistant to the President for Intergovernmental Relations and Public Liason. While many will be eager to hear what Obama’s senior advisor has to say when she speaks on Thursday afternoon, there’s no hiding the disappointment that the Washington doesn’t have a bigger presence this year, even with an Administration that’s barely a week into the job.
Davos veterans like White House economic adviser Larry Summers and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner stayed home (though rumors were circulating that Summers would in fact come), as did national security adviser James Jones. “Short-sighted” is how one Latin American executive described Washington’s efforts, and several European participants also expressed disappointment that they will have to grab policy insights from the likes of former president Bill Clinton or Congressman Barney Frank instead.
Also in short supply are the bankers who played such a major role in the crisis. Some were forced to drop out by circumstance, most notably former Lehman chief Richard Fuld and the recently ousted John Thain of Merrill Lynch. Others appear to have too much to do at the office, or perhaps don’t want to face the crowd. The finance sector is so woefully under-represented in the minds of some people here that HSBC Group Chairman Stephen Green was actually thanked by a journalist at one press conference for being “the banker who showed up.”
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