After missing last year's meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Robert Diamond, the president of Barclays, is back along with the top brass from some of the world's largest banks, despite the gathering political storm they face in Europe and the US. Among the financial firms whose top executives are on the roster again are Bank of America, Citigroup, Credit Suisse, Deutsche Bank, Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs.
The forum's yearly brainstorming session in Davos typically revolves around two themes: the one devised by the organisers and the one that jumps off the front pages to resonate down the corridors of the Congress Centre where the meeting is held and bubbles into the cocktail party chatter. The earthquake in Haiti has already prompted the forum to shift some of its itinerary to addressing the urgent humanitarian concerns there. Google's stand against Beijing is only feeding the billowing fascination with China's growing economic size and influence. And organisers always have to worry that the latest stock market gyrations will divert focus from longer-term issues such as climate change and sustainable economic development.
But it is the brouhaha over the banks, their bonuses and their seemingly unrepentant return to what the international press routinely lampoons as a struggle session for the rich and famous that this year threatens to overshadow the forum's carefully crafted agenda. "It's really less about banking than about the future path of growth," says Lee Howell, a managing director at the forum in charge of the programme. With doubts still surrounding the durability of the global economic recovery, Mr Howell says, the bankers' return is a distraction from more important questions. "It should be 'what is the reality they're returning to?' What is the state of globalisation? What is the state of the global economy, of global governance?"
For its 40th annual meeting, the forum has concocted a somewhat overwhelming menu under the theme: Improve the State of the World: Rethink, Redesign, Rebuild. "We have to rethink our values," says Klaus Schwab, a former business professor at the University of Geneva, who created the forum in 1971 as the "European Management Forum" and who at the age of 71 remains the forum's executive chairman. "We are living together in a global society with many different cultures. We have to redesign our processes - how do we deal with the issues and challenges on the global agenda? And finally, we have to rebuild our institutions."
Much of the spadework for the meeting was done in Dubai last November, when the forum hosted a summit of 700 members of 76 global agenda councils to discuss issues including human rights, health, climate change and investment flows. Far from just trying to devise ways to punish and proscribe the banks blamed for causing the crisis, therefore, the forum's programme in Davos includes sessions that will explore how to prevent financial crises, how to redesign economic policy and restructure the aims of capitalism. The uber-capitalist George Soros is even hosting a lunch on the need for more robust regulation of global financial markets.
That may all seem overly ambitious, even pretentious, for what some participants (the forum strenuously avoids the passive term "attendees" for its invitation-only meeting) treat as the world's most exclusive business conference. While some participants spend the day batting around ideas on how politicians and executives can nudge the world into a more stable orbit, others spend their mornings schussing down the slopes at nearby ski resorts.
Indeed, the forum's mission of "improving the state of the world" has always shared the limelight with the glamour that surrounds the meetings. Organisers have steered away from the red-carpet quality of earlier meetings, but Davos has in the past offered no shortage of rubber-necking opportunities: Sharon Stone, Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Richard Gere and Bono are among the many celebrities who have rubbed elbows with the powerful politicians and corporate titans here in Davos in recent years.
And Davos does double duty as a C-level mixer, where even the uninvited show up for the chance to mingle at what may be the year's most concentrated gathering of global decision makers. This year's meeting brings together 2,500 participants, more than half of whom are business people. The participants also include 30 heads of government, more than 100 top officials from non-governmental organisations and more than 200 academics.
A decade ago, the deals and decisions made in Davos put the conference in the crosshairs of the anti-globalisation movement, complete with window-smashing protesters. As a result, the meeting in Davos resembles a snowbound Guantanamo, complete with barbed wire and armed soldiers. The concerns of a post-September 11 world have demanded that the fortifications remain, even though the protesters seem to have faded away.
Media wags have dined on the rarefied atmosphere for years, lampooning the cocktails and canapes while dismissing the confab as an idle talkfest. In 2007, Michael Lewis, the author of Liar's Poker, dismissed Davos as the place "where people with no talent for risk-taking gather to imagine what actual risk-takers might do". Mr Lewis tweaked the perennially bearish economist Nouriel Roubini for warning that the world was mispricing risk and chided Morgan Stanley's Stephen Roach for fretting before the financial crisis about a "dangerous degree of complacency". At the same meeting, Zhu Min, then the group executive vice president of the Bank of China, warned that "over-liquidity is killing us".
Now those experts are basking in their seeming prescience, and the forum is striving to push its members to come up with concrete recommendations to fix what it believes is a system of national politics being constantly outpaced by global economic issues. "Clearly, the present system of global co-operation is not working sufficiently," Mr Schwab says. "So we want to look at all issues on the global agenda in a systemic, integrated and strategic way, and we want to address in particular the issue of global co-operation."