Each winter, in temperatures hovering around freezing, the world's most prominent personalities descend on the Swiss mountain villages of Davos-Klosters for the World Economic Forum.
For more than a decade, CNBC's Maria Bartiromo has covered this gathering of business, political, academic and cultural leaders committed to improving the state of the world.
At 2013's meeting, the theme of which is "Resilient Dynamism," Maria's team on the snowy ground includes producers Donna Burton and myself. We look forward to covering the people, events and stories of the World Economic Forum for you on-air on CNBC and on CNBC.com.
In preparation for what will be five jam-packed days -- fueled by caffeine and excitement by having access to some of the globe's biggest power players and most thoughtful people -- Maria and I discussed the themes, opportunities and surprises that come out of this unique event. Our conversation follows, edited for clarity and length.
KK : What do you think about the themes of the Davos event? How do they impact the conversation among business and political leaders in the weeks or the months -- or even the year -- after the event?
MB: The World Economic Forum has been able to gather the important voices of the world to come together. And I think (WEF founder) Klaus Schwab's mission in all of this is for companies and individuals to get together to do good. Bringing people together to actually think about the big issues of the world like, girls and women and their equal rights, or the drought and the need for water all around the world, or economic global stories like the slowdown in China and Washington dysfunction.
The fact that you have so many people from so many different walks of life coming together for a week in the snow, where you really can't go anywhere else, you end up together for the five days. You're able to really spend time with these global thinkers to actually approach big issues in the world in an organized and thoughtful manner.
You know, it's snowy, it's freezing, it's icy, you could fall getting to places. But, I've been going now for 15 years. I always feel like I come back and I have a new idea, something that I hadn't thought about before.
KK: As you're getting prepared for all of the people we're going to be seeing at this year's event, what kind of attendees and topics are you seeing on this year's agenda that weren't there maybe 10 years ago or even five years ago?
MB: Well, I think we've seen real structural change in a number of industries, and I think that is being reflected in some of the sessions. I'll be moderating one of the first sessions for opening day, and that's on Wednesday, and it's called "The Global Context." And basically, what it sets out to do is put the global financial services industry in context and take a look at some of the change that has occurred. Because the financial services industry is going through tremendous structural change. It will never be the same as it was 20 years ago.
The last couple of decades, the financial services industry had been riding a wave, riding a wave of globalization. Today many economies are looking inward. They're facing their own need for austerity and spending cuts, so they're looking inward. So you don't have this globalization story where banks are going to benefit from the population growth, for example, in places like India and Indonesia.
There will be very few companies that look exactly the same as what they looked like in, you know, the last 20 years. That's some of the new sessions, trying to pick apart these changes, trying to figure out, you know, why and who wins and who loses.
The whole idea of austerity is another major subject because the fact is everyone in the world is facing their own austerity right now. You know, you hear austerity a lot out of Europe, but the fact is that we've got austerity in the United States, we've got austerity in Brazil, we've got austerity, you know, throughout Asia because countries are looking at the realities of the day and recognizing things have slowed down. The consumer has slowed down. Businesses are slimming down, they're cutting workforces, they're cutting investment. And so we're all dealing with the new normal.
I think the women theme is going to be a big one. There are several female leadership groups going to Davos. I'll be moderating a dinner Friday night for the top women of the world. And I love this dinner; I've been going the last couple of years. It's a compilation of women -- from Indra Nooy from Pepsico to Queen Rania of Jordan to CEOs to managers of businesses to heads of nonprofits, Melinda Gates -- all getting together to talk about what's important to women. I think that is going to be one of the topics of conversation.
And then there are other things that are, of course, localized. There will be talks with the leadership in countries in Europe, Angela Merkel. I'll be moderating a one-on-one with George Osborne, the chancellor of the exchequer, basically the treasury secretary of the U.K., to talk about the finances there. The European economic story will be full and foremost in the front of the agenda. What's going on in Asia will be top of the agenda. I know that there will be a fair amount of people from Russia. The energy story, alternative energy. So there are a lot of stories, I think, that will materialize as a result of all of these sessions.
KK: I think it's interesting that they've umbrellaed everything this year under the theme of "Resilient Dynamism." That after all of these changes that you're mentioning to political systems, to consumer systems, even to infrastructure systems, that the big questions people are focusing on are how to keep moving, but also be able to withstand these headwinds that are coming from such a rapidly changing world.
MB: No doubt about it. And that's under the umbrella of austerity. You know, how do you stay resilient and strong and vibrant when you're actually being forced to do more with less?
KK: What do you think is the fly-on-a-wall question that most U.S. investors would have if they could be in a room or in a conference room with some of these bold-faced names that are attending the event?
MB: I think U.S. investors want to know "where are the hot spots in the world today? Where can I make money and where can I make a difference in the world today? What are the hot emerging markets of the world where there can be investable opportunities?"
I have been hearing a lot about the countries of Africa; and it really depends on which country you're talking about, but a number of countries in Africa right now are really seeing some vibrancy as a result of their natural resources. Now, of course, there is still a massive share of issues, governance issues, playing-by-the-rules issues in Africa. But increasingly, I'm hearing deep-pocketed investors looking to Africa to make money. There is a fair amount of leadership coming from a number of African countries to Davos, and I think that will certainly be one of the issues talked about because Africa is rich in natural resources from oil to coffee to a whole host of agricultural commodities.
That's going to be one area that investors look at, but they're certainly going to look at population growth in places like Indonesia. You know, for a long time we talked about Brazil, Russia, India, China, which make up the BRICs, and we forgot places like Indonesia, Vietnam, Malaysia. There are a number of smaller countries that are actually turning out real economic growth, and I expect that, from an investor standpoint, there's going to be a continued search in terms of, `Where can I invest where things are still attractively priced and actually follow the growth trend higher?'
And I always look at China because of the way it's growing so much. It's been growing 10 percent now for 15 years. And I think the issue with China is the fact that the Chinese government is not going to give it away. And so the Chinese government recognizes that American companies, multinational companies, they want a piece of that population growth in China. They want to sell to the 1.3 billion people in China. It's not going to be that easy. The only way any multinational company or American company can actually invest in those companies is through a joint venture, limited partnership, which of course, is not offering much upside. So China is a story that is still developing from an investor standpoint.
KK. In your years covering Davos, what do you think is the most surreal or memorable experience that you had on Magic Mountain--as they call it?
MB: Well, I think one of my surreal moments was last year when CNBC hosted a dinner, and I moderated the dinner conversation, and one of the attendees was Mick Jagger. I mean, for me that was like, OK, I have arrived. I'm having dinner with Mick Jagger.
KK: What did he think about the global economy?
MB: I'm half joking. He was very smart. At one point we were talking about technology and how there's such an explosion of devices and everybody's always looking down and looking at video games or mail or on the Internet. And he said, 'You know what, I don't like it. I don't like it at all, and I don't want my kids to have a device all the time. I want them to be home reading. I want them in bed early.' I mean, he really came across like a very just prudent and responsible father, like anybody else. And certainly, you know, that's not the picture that you have a superstar rock star.
KK: Probably a grandfather now.
MB: Or a grandfather. But, you know, he was -- he was terrific on the subject. He was sort of pooh-poohing technology in terms of the overdoing of all the noise out there. So that was — that was one of -- one of my surreal moments. But I think seeing a little celebrity mixed in with business is exciting.
I find the whole thing surreal. It's an exciting privilege to be able to go. It really is. It's an opportunity to be on the ground with people who are decision makers, who are putting money to work in good places around the world, who are global-minded; and you always come away more educated and you always come away, I think, more fulfilled because it's such a diverse group of people and diverse group of ideas.