ZURICH (Reuters) – Political leaders and central bankers will dominate this week’s annual Davos forum as a chastened business elite is sidelined in the drive to reboot the world economy, improve global security and slow climate change.
More than 40 heads of state and government — almost double the number last year — will be joined by 36 finance ministers and central bankers, including the central bank chiefs of all the G8 group of rich countries except the United States.
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About 1,400 business executives will also be in Davos but fewer top bankers and captains of industry are expected as they struggle to keep their businesses afloat — and themselves in a job, mindful of the event’s glitzy image in more austere times.
“The pendulum is swinging back to governments now we’re grappling with recession,” said Thomas Mayer, Deutsche Bank economist. “We’re going into a period where more government involvement will mean lower growth and higher inflation.”
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin will open the four-day meeting on Wednesday in the Swiss Alpine resort that is being organised under the title “Shaping the Post-Crisis world.”
Also present will be Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso and Prime Minister Gordon Brown as well as Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser to new U.S. President Barack Obama.
It is the first time world leaders will get together to discuss the deepening crisis since a meeting of the G20 group of big and emerging countries in Washington in November.
The G20 meets again in April ahead of a G8 summit in July and before that, finance ministers from the Group of Seven nations gather in Rome in mid-February.
The World Economic Forum was set up in 1971 as a business and academic think tank whose motto is “entrepreneurship in the global public interest.” Its annual Davos meeting has grown into a huge event that has become a focus of anti-capitalist anger.
The Financial Times newspaper predicted this year’s meeting would be characterised by “sobriety and self-recrimination” with fewer glitzy cocktail parties and corporate skiing jaunts.
Instead, participants are invited to an event that simulates life in a refugee camp and asks them to navigate a mine field, while non-profit groups will hand out awards “for outstanding achievements in social and environmental irresponsibility.”
GLOBAL RISKS ON AGENDA
A WEF report ahead of the meeting said the main risks facing the world included deteriorating government finances, a slowing Chinese economy and threats to food and health from climate change, along with a lack of global coordination to tackle them.
Worries about protectionism as a response to the downturn are also growing. Around 20 trade ministers meet on Saturday on the sidelines in Davos to discuss long-running Doha trade round talks to open up commerce.
“We have not yet seen the same protectionism in trade with beggar thy neighbour policies of the ’30s. And I will fight hard to ensure we do not,” Brown, who will chair the April G20 summit, said on Monday.
“But we also need to ensure we do not exercise a new form of financial mercantilism of retreat into domestic lending and domestic financial markets,” he said.
G20 leaders called in November for an outline trade deal by the end of 2008 to help counter the economic crisis. But late last year, World Trade Organisation chief Pascal Lamy decided political differences were still too wide to invite ministers to Geneva to seek a breakthrough.
While the focus will clearly be on the world economy, security challenges like ongoing tensions the Middle East will also be on the agenda, as will climate change, with about 30 energy and environment ministers in attendance.
Klaus Schwab, the forum’s founder and chairman, said the meeting would be a chance for leaders to think about the kind of world they wanted to see emerge when the crisis is over.
“What we are experiencing is the birth of a new era, a wake-up call to overhaul our institutions, our systems and, above all, our way of thinking,” he said.
While this year’s meeting illustrates a shift in the balance of power towards governments, political leaders in Davos are likely to get a reminder that the crisis also threatens their own positions after recent civil unrest in several countries.
While activists have been kept away from Davos itself after a demonstration turned violent in 2000, protestors have warned of trouble in Geneva after an anti-capitalist march planned for Saturday to coincide with Davos was banned.
“The WEF is a symbol of the neoliberal policies of the last 20 years that have caused this crisis. We have no confidence that the same people who caused the crisis can solve it,” said Laurent Tettamenti, an organiser of the Geneva protest.
(Editing by Mike Peacock)
By Emma Thomasson