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What's in a name? Davos suffers from headline headaches

Monday, 20 Jan 2014 | 11:15 AM ET

"For me, Davos is about filling my pockets full of business cards and getting to go up to other CEOs and have a proper chat without having to go through vast numbers of assistants. It just cuts through all the nonsense."

That's what one pretty honest top UK CEO told me at my first World Economic Forum back in 2006. For that gentleman all the big grandstanding speeches, debates and accompanying global surveys were a nice added benefit -- but not really the point.

Simon Dawson | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Davos is, of course, many things to many different people, but to the detractors it is a worthless, Bilderberg-type junket where the world's business and political elite gather to think of new ways to keep global wealth to themselves.

For me, every time I've attended a WEF -- or for that matter a G-8 or G-20 event -- I have gone through the same thought process of trying to assess the worth of the get-together. Weirdly enough, the more of these mega-gatherings I go to, the more I appreciate their worth. Yes, the antiglobalisation lobby are right to be cynical as to the raison d'être for many participants. There clearly isn't a vein of altruism in every delegate that turns up in the Alps. That would be naive to think so.

(Read more: The Chinese are coming – to Davos)

So what is the upside? Well for me it lies in the counter-factual. What is the alternative? Do we really not want our so-called world and economic leaders not meeting up to discuss everything from global warming to financial market crises -- from the rise of China to the supply of global energy? OK, all these and many more issues may not get solved by WEF, by the G-20 et al. But without the dialog, surely the world would be a much more scary and polarized place?

Davos 2013: Who got it right? Who got it wrong?
As the kick-off to Davos 2014 approaches, CNBC's Geoff Cutmore and Steve Segdwick recap the 2013 edition and discuss whether participants were too cautious.

And yet? And yet I'm not sure WEF helps itself with the annual big picture headline topic around which we are all supposed to pontificate and which all too often smacks of some management consultancy/public relations gumpf formulated to signify something deep and meaningful and yet empty of substance at the same time. For instance, this year's grand meeting title is "The Reshaping of the World: Consequences for Society, Politics and Business". Say no more, eh?

So Davos likes to paint itself as the hub of renewal for the global system and it's headline topic says as much pretty much every year. Don't take my word for it. Have a look at the past few years:- 2007 the big theme was "The Shifting Power Equation". Now that was great in that it covered sub themes such as the rise of "Asia's Economic Giant" and "Climate Change". My only teensy-weensy problem was that in 2007 the big thematic seemed to miss the small issue that we were on the cusp on the biggest financial crisis since the 1930's. Oops.

In 2008 the theme was "The Power of Collaborative Innovation". Not bad but given that on 22nd January coming into the meeting the Federal Reserve was cutting US rates by 75 basis points -- the biggest cut since 1984 -- as financial markets were imploding, I can't help thinking we could have had more bite in the WEF big theme.

Roll forward to 2009 and I fear this was not Davos' finest moment in terms of the big conversation. The title this year was "Shaping the Post-Crisis World". So we were in post-crisis in January and by April the G20 was having to find $1.1 trillion to prop up the world economy. Shall we leave that one there?

2010 and 2011 we were talking more renewal of the global system with titles for the meet of "Improve the State of the World: Rethink, Redesign, Rebuild" and "Shared Norms for the New Reality" respectively. Yep, seems about right but given that Davos 2014 is once again about "reshaping" I guess we still have a way to go.

(Read more: US economy, joblessness, may top agenda at WEF 2014)

More of the same in 2012. "The Great Transformation: Shaping New Models" was the headline. The Guardian newspaper says is was a year of soul-searching for WEF, which took a look at the kind of capitalism and financial system we really needed in the 21st century.

Finally, last year Davos rallied around "Resilient Dynamism". Not really sure what that means myself but the IMF's Christine Lagarde said at the meet that 2013 would be a year of make or break. That investments were needed to drive growth required to create jobs, especially in the USA and Europe. So did we make or break? Financial markets boomed but was that because we remained broken and lapped up the easy money or because they believed we had finally turned a corner? The jury is still out.

In essence, Davos is a rich assortment of ingredients, many things to many people but in trying to cover so many bases in its grand themes it can taste a little bland. And that is shame because it has so much to offer.

Steve Sedgwick is an anchor for CNBC's SquawkBoxEurope

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