At Davos, Crisis Culls the Guest List
GENEVA — The titans of Wall Street no longer sit atop the magic mountain.
Not long ago, at the World Economic Forum’s annual gathering in Davos, Switzerland, Richard S. Fuld Jr. of Lehman Brothers held forth on the state of the global economy before mesmerized journalists and cowering subordinates while other Wall Street stars mingled after-hours with the likes of Claudia Schiffer, the German supermodel.
As business, government and nonprofit leaders trek up the peak originally made famous by Thomas Mann’s novel, but now better known for the gabfest that begins Tuesday, star power is no longer in.
This year, politicians, not corporate titans, are poised to be the big draw, echoing the broader power shift away from the free market as one government after another tries to prop up its sinking economy.
This time, the prototype of the jet-setting “Davos Man” may well be Gordon Brown, the dour British prime minister who spent last week staving off another round of bank failures in London.
And with much of the financial system in Britain and the United States edging toward a government takeover, the 2009 agenda at Davos, “Shaping the Post-Crisis World,” seems to have concentrated minds on the here and now more than past themes like climate change and globalization.
“The pendulum has swung and power has moved back to governments,” said Klaus Schwab, the German-born economics professor who founded the World Economic Forum in 1971 and has been its impresario ever since. “This is the biggest economic crisis since Davos began.”
The crisis, to be sure, is hurting some more than others. While Davos will draw about 2,500 participants — roughly the same as last year — it looks as if there will be many fewer members of the tasseled-loafer set strutting down the resort’s snowy streets.
The insurerAmerican International Group, while still afloat, has dropped its top-tier sponsorship.
Lloyd C. Blankfein, the chief executive of Goldman Sachs, is sending his deputy. It looks as if Ms. Schiffer and Angelina Jolie, another celebrity from the glamour years of the boom, will also be absent.
Even Bono, the rock star and social activist who has attended for the last three years, has other commitments: he and his band, U2, are releasing a new album.
Coinciding with the Chinese New Year did not help either, Mr. Schwab acknowledged. But he says the absence of some Asian business executives will be made up for by the presence of Wen Jiabao, China’s prime minister.
Lehman, once a top-tier corporate “strategic partner” to the tune of 500,000 Swiss francs a year, is bankrupt, of course, and Mr. Fuld’s invitation has disappeared with it. Even if he had wanted to come, Mr. Schwab crows, there is no room for has-beens at Davos.
Some invitees do not want to test Mr. Schwab’s hospitality.
John A. Thain, the former chief executive of Merrill Lynch, abruptly canceled after being pushed out on Thursday from a top job at Bank of America, which acquired Merrill last year. Mr. Thain, a Davos regular who once ran the New York Stock Exchange, was to have taken part in a panel on Jan. 31, “The Bank of the Future.”
For those still in the club, the private evening galas — as much a part of the Davos experience as the high-minded daytime discussions — will also lack the panache of yesteryear.
Google, whose annual fete was known for vintage California champagne as well as tech glitterati, is toning down this year’s festivities, as is Citigroup, which recently received a $45 billion bailout from Washington.
Citigroup, now scaling back to a smaller Citicorp, still plans to send five formal participants to the conference, like others in the strategic partners circle. But the company has sharply reduced the army of other executives and support staff that usually accompanies them.
Indeed, big banks and Wall Street firms have been busy checking with one another in recent weeks to gauge what is an appropriate level of hospitality and what might be considered excessive in today’s bleak economic climate, according to one planner.
Of course, when it comes to economizing at Davos, everything is relative. At B B Heli in Zurich, which provides helicopter service to Davos, business is still strong, but more passengers are opting for a single-engine copter rather than the faster twin-engine model, says Marcus Baumann, the general manager. So instead of $8,500 for the 45-minute flight, the cost is a mere $4,250.
Burda, the German publisher of Focus magazine and other publications, is also adapting. Its star-studded nightcap has always been a big draw, with Naomi Campbell as Burda’s special guest last year and Ms. Schiffer the year before that.
At the Burda party in 2007, journalists and corporate chieftains alike posed for pictures with the German supermodel as other awe-struck guests like Stephen A. Schwarzman, chief executive of the Blackstone Group, and Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan Chase, wandered nearby.
Mr. Dimon and Mr. Schwarzman will be in Davos this year, but Burda is not bringing the supermodels, showcasing instead its annual digital media conference called DLD.
“People are reassessing what they do in Davos, and the organizers have encouraged sobriety and want to focus on the crisis,” said Marcel Reichart, a managing director at Burda.
What about stars? Instead of Ms. Schiffer, he offered up Guido Westerwelle, a prominent German politician who leads the Free Democratic Party.
“He might be a celebrity,” Mr. Reichart said wanly, a trace of disappointment in his voice. “This year the politicians are the real stars.”
To Angel Gurria, secretary-general of the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which does research for the richest industrial democracies, “Davos is reflecting what’s happened in real life: the main protagonists and the ones setting the agenda are the political leaders.”
Along with Gordon Brown and Wen Jiabao, other top political figures set to appear include Vladimir V. Putin, the Russian prime minister, and Angela Merkel, the German chancellor. All together, the leaders of at least 40 countries will make it up the mountain, up from 27 last year and 20 in 2007.
President Obama is a little too busy to attend, however.
Lawrence H. Summers, director of the White House National Economic Council, and James L. Jones, the national security adviser, were originally supposed to attend, but withdrew late last week.
Instead, the headliner from the White House will be Valerie Jarrett, a top White House aide who is a longtime confidante of both Mr. Obama and his wife, Michelle.
Besides the politicians, another group of unlikely stars this week will be the economic doomsayers who have now emerged as prophets, like Nouriel Roubini of New York University and Robert J. Shiller of Yale. The two men are discussion leaders for a dinner Friday night that will focus on “The Power of Fear in Times of Uncertainty.”
For the Wall Streeters who are in attendance, talking with these two Cassandras may not be as much fun as chatting up Claudia, Angelina or Brad. But then again, it might finally help the World Economic Forum live up to its motto: Committed to Improving the State of the World.
“You come out of Davos feeling a little bit wiser,” Mr. Gurria said. “Or at least with the consolation that you are as confused as everyone else and don’t feel so bad.”