Even the powerful men of Davos can’t control their own agenda.
The CEOs, top academics, and world leaders—many of whom have traveled by private jet and then helicopter to Davos, a secluded Swiss ski town—for this year’s World Economic Forum have come officially to discuss how power in the global economy is shifting, from traditional leaders like the U.S. to the emerging markets.
Instead, on the eve of the conference, which officially kicks off on Tuesday night, there were signs that the economic order of the past few decades seems intact. The latest sign came on Monday, when Chinese stocks plunged 8%, their largest drop in six years. Meanwhile, Brazil’s economy is stagnant and the collapse in oil prices has pushed Russia into a crippling recession. At the same time, U.S. GDP rose 5% in the third quarter, once again making the nation the driver of the world’s economy. That’s likely to lead much of the talk in Davos this year.
And while the monied men—and they are, once again, mostly men—have come to talk economics and global policy, at least some of that high-minded fare will be overshadowed by more salacious talk. The U.K.’s Prince Andrew, who is attending the World Economic Forum this year, is likely to get hit with questions about a scandal with an American woman, who claims he used her as a sex slave when she was 17. It will be the first time Prince Andrew has been in public since the allegations were made.
The World Economic Forum’s official agenda often gets pushed aside by world events that unfold while the powerful are walled in by Davos’ peaks. But it has been six years since leaders in Davos were meeting in the midst of what looks to be growing economic turmoil. And it’s the first time in a while where at least a portion of that instability is coming from the conference’s home turf.
European leaders will be speaking on the eve, once again, of a vote in Greece that could break up the euro. That and the plunging price of oil threaten to hurl the world’s financial system back into tumult.
Officially, the title of this year’s World Economic Forum is “The New Global Context.” The economic context that has emerged in the past few months is one of cheaper oil and instability in economies in Russia, Europe, and, most recently, China. That’s likely to make oil the spotlight of any discussion at Davos. On Wednesday, the secretary-general of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) Salem Adballa El Badri will speak on a panel with Arkady Dvorkovich, deputy prime minister of Russia. Also on the panel will be Khalid Al Falih, the CEO of Saudi Aramco, the Saudi Arabian oil company. The discussion will likely focus on whether the drop in oil prices is supply-driven, a gambit by Saudi Arabia and other nations to drive out other higher cost oil suppliers, or if it’s a sign that the world economy is slowing more dramatically than it may initially seem.
Central bankers around the world should expect some criticism, and that includes those in Switzerland, who last week surprised the world, causing currencies around the world to tumble compared to the Swiss franc. On Wednesday morning, New York University Professor Nouriel Roubini and hedge funder Paul Singer, both of whom have criticized the Federal Reserve for keeping interest rates near zero for so long, will talk. This summer, Singer said that the rise in the U.S. markets was based on fake money from the Fed and that it was not sustainable.
Davos is known for its high-powered panel discussions. The highest wattage finance conversation will come on Thursday and will likely focus on what could happen when the Fed begins to raise interest rates. That panel will include Goldman Sachs Chief Operating Officer Gary Cohn; Ray Dalio, who manages the largest hedge fund in the world; Harvard professor and former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers; and Christine Lagarde, who is head of the International Monetary Fund.
On Thursday afternoon, Microsoft CEO Satya Nedella will debate the future of tech with Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg and Google’s Eric Schmidt. Also talking will be Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer. But perhaps the hottest tech ticket at Davos, given the state of China’s economy, is to hear Alibaba’s CEO Jack Ma, who will be speaking Friday morning. In September, the Chinese online retail giant raised $26 billion on the New York Stock Exchange, in the biggest IPO in U.S. history.
Income inequality is a perennial topic at the World Economic Forum. But the discussion of inequality at Davos tends to be impersonal and focus on rich nations versus poor nations. But influential research group Oxfam has attempted to make the issue more personal this year. On Monday, the charity Oxfam released a report targeted at the World Economic Forum that said the world’s wealthiest 1% are close to owning as much wealth as the rest of the globe combined. Davos gets its share of that 1%. Also, President Obama’s State of the Union Address on Tuesday will likely focus on income inequality, which could make it a larger part of the discussion at Davos.
Also, given the recent attacks in Paris, terrorism is likely to be a topic of conversation in Davos. French President Francois Hollande will address the conference on Friday.
U.S. officials have been somewhat absent in recent years at Davos, but they are slated to return this year. Secretary of State John Kerry, who was criticized for not participating in demonstrations against terrorism in France, will address the conference on Friday. U.S. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew is also slated to be at Davos, but he is not scheduled to publicly address conference attendees. Other U.S. officials or politicians on the attendance list include Penny Pritzker, the Secretary of Commerce; and Darrell Issa, the congressman from California. Former U.S. House of Representatives Majority Leader Eric Cantor will also be at Davos, but this year as an investment banker, for boutique firm Moelis & Co.
For the first time, the World Economic Forum will hold a discussion of gay and lesbian rights on its official program. But likely to get as much buzz as the panel is the fact that it won’t take place until Saturday, when many of the conference’s rich and powerful have already decamped or have headed to the ski slopes.
So it goes in Davos.