Page last updated at 00:19 GMT, Wednesday, 28 January 2009

Serious Davos gets down to business

By Tim Weber
Business editor, BBC News website

Staff members set up the main room at the Davos Congress Centre

The party is over. Well, at least it has been toned down. Once criticised as a glitzy event and schmoozefest for the very rich and powerful, the World Economic Forum is getting all serious.

Yes, every year hard topics dominated the agenda - from poverty in Africa to global warming, from disruptive technologies to complex mergers.

But at the meeting of the movers and shakers in the Swiss mountain village of Davos there was always a certain exuberance in the air, and plenty of opportunities to party.

One global financial crisis later, the mood has changed. Tuesday evening's welcome reception was a somewhat subdued affair and ended much earlier than usual.

This year, said one participant, Davos will not be dominated by the bankers. It will be Davos of the politicians and regulators, who had to ride to the rescue of their financial sector.

The official dress code for the forum is "informal or casual". A few years ago, ties were officially banned.

But in the world of business, serious times demand a serious dress code, and on Tuesday evening an unusually high number of participants resorted to formal suits and ties.

The guessing game

Of course, Davos is still mainly a networking event, but as old friends hugged and new friends swapped business cards, nearly everywhere conversations seemed to drift to economic issues.

Barbed wire protects a hotel the day before the opening of the Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum

Will technology spending fall off a cliff? Can consumers return to old spending habits? Which companies will fail to survive the perfect financial storm?

The reception was also an opportunity to play a new game: spot a banker.

In previous years, the forum and especially its parties were positively teeming with bankers, hedge fund managers and private equity tycoons.

Where are they now? Will this really be a Davos without Wall Street? Have all bankers fallen victim to a new modesty?

Heavy hints

With most big US banks part-owned or at least bailed out by taxpayers, jetting off to the Swiss mountains sits uneasy with the need to show political correctness.

If anybody had missed the hint, they only had to read the news from Washington, where new Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner told the bosses of troubled banking (ex-)giant Citigroup to cancel a recently approved order for a $50m executive jet.

Mr Geithner himself won't be a Davos man this year. His boss, Barack Obama, has told him and other key members of his administration to stay at home and help sort out the financial mess.

America's voice, however, will be sorely missed at the forum.

Contrary to rumour, the forum can be a very useful event. With so many key decision makers in one place, this is the best opportunity to discuss and even agree solutions.

And despite the high-profile cancellations, like that of Barclays boss Bob Diamond, there are still "one or two bankers around," jokes one of the UK's top bankers. "Let's wait and see who's really coming," he says and goes on to discuss whether banks really have lost the trust of their customers.

This year's Davos is all about finding ways to restore the confidence of the markets, says Yugo Ishida, chairman of Japanese banking giant Nomura's operations in Europe, Asia and America.

To make it a success, however, depends on whether everybody is prepared to put their cards on the table.

"If people are honest and say what's going on, then it will be fantastic," says John Studzinski, senior managing director at Blackstone Group. "If they are papering over the cracks, it will be terrible."

And even if Wall Street's top bosses are absent, their lieutenants will be here - albeit with a lower profile.

Goldman Sachs for example, the bank that survived the credit crunch with relatively little damage, has cancelled its annual Davos reception.

Local papers report that spending on parties is down 30%. A blow to the amusement levels of Davos man and woman, but more importantly a very serious blow to the local economy.

Watch out for 2010

Not everybody is despondent.

Aaron Patzer is the young chief executive of internet start-up Mint.com. His website allows customers to see all their accounts, loans and investments in one place - for free. He makes his money by offering them better deals on everything from credit cards to mortgages.

Business is booming, he says, and in just 16 months he has acquired one million customers eager to save money. Invited to Davos as a technology pioneer, his young company is already close to achieving profitability.

Last year, when the crisis was still called a "credit crunch" or a problem with "sub-prime mortgages," Davos had already toned down the party atmosphere a bit.

But watch out for 2010, says Nomura's Yugo Ishida. "It will be more interesting to see which bankers will come again next year, who still has a job."



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