Davos Has Lost Its Way

Jan 18, 2024

Ah, how I miss the pizzaz of Davos. Rolling out of a warm bed and watching the glitterati parade on CNBC is hardly the same as the bone chilling first-hand experience. I was a mainstay at the World Economic Forum for nearly fifteen years in the early 2000s. At the time, I loved the experience. Looking back, I now have second thoughts.

My entrée to Davos arose out of my former perch—Morgan Stanley’s Chief Economist. It all started with a screen test for the coveted invitation; on a plane ride back after speaking at a China conference in the late 1990s, Klaus Schwab introduced himself and made a personal pitch.  Due mainly to time constraints, but also a reluctance to indulge in the well-known Davos party scene, I turned down several subsequent invitations.  Schwab’s team persisted and I finally accepted a speaking role at the 2002 meetings which had been moved to New York in solidarity with the 9/11 trauma a few months earlier.

The event was electric, the sessions engaging, the networking unparalleled, and I only went to one party—a black-tie affair under very tight security at the New York Stock Exchange. I was immediately hooked. In in the years that followed, I dutifully trekked off to Davos—eventually as part of Morgan Stanley’s contingent but then, after I left the firm full-time in 2010, I was offered the coveted  position as a member of the Davos “faculty.” Over the years, I had prominent speaking slots in high-profile sessions on the world economic outlook, China, globalization, and trade. I spoke at lunches and dinners and made the rounds on the interview circuit—television and the written media. And I condescended to go to some of the parties and mingle with the glitterati. To cap it off, I even had my own regular Swiss driver, the affable Daniel Feurer, who was masterful in handling the slog between Zurich and the mountains, managing my local Davos logistics, and organizing a few memorable skiing escapes.

As I look back on all those years, two unusual anecdotes come to mind. In 2009, former Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao came to Davos. I had known Wen for many years, and when he strolled past my favorite table at the Congress Centre with a large security entourage, we started chatting. After a few minutes he left and a smaller unescorted man, dressed uncomfortably in a navy-blue raincoat,  came up to me to shake the hand of the presumably important Davos man who had just spoken with the premier of China. It was my only personal encounter with Vladimir Putin, complete with a painful handshake and those penetrating blue eyes.

A few years later in 2012, Davos was in the crosshairs of the Occupy Wall Street movement, which fixated on the corporate greed and financial excesses that allegedly fostered mounting inequalities.  Swiss security was concerned that sympathetic protesters might disrupt the formal meetings. But the politically correct WEF stepped in and held an offsite Open Forum at a local high school to give the Occupy crowd an opportunity to vent. I was one of five panelists—the others being politicians, international diplomats, and Maria, the designated Occupy spokesperson; I was booed and hissed as the targeted Wall Street villain. The meeting was chaotic, passionate, and ultimately threatening as the unruly crowd eventually rushed the stage.  As I subsequently wrote in the Financial Times, I was escorted out through a secret kitchen exit and quickly shoved into Daniel’s waiting car for a harrowing drive back to the gushy confines of another glitzy dinner at the Belvedere Hotel.  A sharp contrast, to say the least!

There is plenty more to  look back on during my time at Davos, including frequent encounters with the stars—in my time, Bono, Angelina Jolie, Sharon Stone  (later on, Mick Jagger, Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, etc., etc.)—and a long list of movers and shakers—from Tony Blair, Bill Clinton, Shimon Peres, and Yasser Arafat to Eric Schmidt, Sheryl Sandberg, and Bill Gates, to every central banker, finance minister, CEO, and renowned journalist you can think of.

But that’s where the postmortem starts to unravel. Davos has become less a forum of serious debate to change the world and more of an impressionistic exercise in star gazing, party hopping, and, saddest of all, an agglomeration of sessions featuring superficial sound bites masquerading as profound interventions.

Notwithstanding its original not-for-profit status, the commercialization of  WEF Inc now has the upper hand, with some $470 million in revenues for FY ending in June 2023. Panelists are increasingly selected on the basis of their financial contribution rather than on the strength of their expertise.  As a result, the globalization debate has been marginalized at precisely the wrong time. The great idea of Davos as an organization aimed at improving the state of the world has become staid and defensive as the pendulum has swung toward de-globalization. A once vibrant community of engagement is now self-absorbed and disjointed.

Too bad. Once an insider, maybe I’m chafing at now being an outsider. Or maybe time offers a more objective perspective. Either way, the live feed on my home screen stirs up a nostalgia for the way it used to be. I worry that Davos is a great idea that has lost its way.

You can follow me on X/Twitter @SRoach_econ

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