Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Noted by Absence

It is the time of the year when the rich/famous/powerful (really no separation needed they are one in the same and emphasis on the number one) have their annual meet/greet in Davos. I cannot decide if this 21st Century Bohemian Grove is an orgy, which the Mayor London seems to imply, or just a circle jerk, which may be the same thing.

Each year there are very "symposiums" centered around some vaguely pretentious theme that is of the moment. This year it is income inequality, how so 4 years ago. Not that any Occupy Wall Streeters will be invited or even there protesting, as the locale makes that whole WTO Battle in Seattle seem distant if not actually foreign.

The toady to the rich and famous, Andrew Ross Sorkin, who might rival Chrystia Freeland, as the most obsequious of the ass kissers is actually saying it is not the RSVP's that are of note but those who choose not to attend, not now or in fact ever. And sure enough it is quite the cognoscenti of the rich and infamous who don't need nor want to go. Well why when there are so many other pretentious and closer meetings, Sun Valley, Aspen or for the faux boho crowd there is always a TED talk or two to gleefully prove how you can get down with the poors as they entertain you.. whoops I mean inform you.

I am relieved that in fact the curtain is being pulled back on this OZ, the need to pretend this anything more than a networking game with skiing is well like saying that there is a lot of business at the varying lobbying events that our US Congress attends in between doing absolutely nothing for the betterment of the country. This article yesterday describes the hard life of having to ski domestic but it sounds good as it is free and who turns down free lift tickets or a lunch? Certainly not these Senators. Highly amusing.

I plan on running for the local seat of Adam Kline of my district and my campaign promise is that I will absolutely do nothing but go on a free trip and then quit after so as to not interfere with the business of catering to lobbyists and alienating my colleagues while writing useless but pretentious legislation that is underfunded and over enforced. That is a step up from Mr. Kline clearly.

Nice work if you can get it. Wait there is work involved?

DealBook Column January 20, 2014,
Notable in Their Absence From Davos

The annual parade of boldface names at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, is always striking. This year’s attendees at the meeting, which begins Wednesday, will include Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe; the billionaire Bill Gates; JPMorgan Chase’s chief executive, Jamie Dimon; and the movie star-philanthropist Matt Damon.

But just as notable are the luminaries who consistently avoid Davos, despite repeated invitations.

The billionaire Warren E. Buffett has never attended. Neither has Timothy D. Cook, chief executive of Apple, the world’s largest company by market value. (His predecessor, Steve Jobs, never went, either.) The founders of Google, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, stopped going a couple of years ago, as did Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chairman. Both companies do send other executives, though.

The leaders of General Electric and IBM, Jeffrey R. Immelt and Virginia M. Rometty, are not attendees either. “I don’t go to Davos and places like that,” Mr. Immelt once said dismissively.

The World Economic Forum, for which the cost of membership and a ticket to the annual meeting is more than $70,000, is both admired and derided as a velvet-rope club for the 1 percent of the 1 percent. The mayor of London, Boris Johnson, once attended Davos only to dismiss it as “a constellation of egos involved in massive mutual orgies of adulation.”

Whatever their reasons for staying away, the leaders of some of the largest and most transformative companies are demonstrating, with their absence, the difficulty of convening a global conversation with all the main stakeholders. Given that one of the themes this year is how to address economic inequality, it would be helpful to have the world’s largest employers participate in that discussion, not to mention a sampling of rank-and-file workers, who never receive an invitation.

Over the last few weeks, I called more than a dozen A-list names (or their handlers) who either regularly go to Davos or who make a point of staying away. I was intrigued by the reasons some people turn down an invitation coveted by so many others.

Those who attend said most frequently that they did so less for the high-minded panel discussions and more for the sheer efficiency of meeting with so many peers, clients, regulators and politicians at one time. “It would take me an entire year, and I don’t know how many flights, to see the number of people I can in three days at Davos,” one top bank chief executive told me, speaking on the condition of anonymity because Davos attendance can be a polarizing issue.

In the avoider camp is Mohamed A. El-Erian, the chief of Pimco, one of the largest bond investors in the world, and someone who given his background would seem like the perfect Davos man — an Egyptian-raised, Oxford-educated global investor. He has rejected repeated invitations to Davos, skeptical of the value of speed-dating with so many clients in the Alps.

“For me, it has been and remains an issue of efficient time management,” he told me in an email. “Our general preference is for more focused and less rushed meetings.” Mr. El-Erian is so anti-Davos he once wrote an article for a magazine distributed at the forum called “Why I Won’t Go to Davos.”

“Over the years, and in the context of an increasingly unsettled and uncertain world,” Mr. El-Erian wrote, “Davos has not had much impact.”

Mr. El-Erian’s rival, Laurence D. Fink, the chairman of BlackRock, which manages more than $4 trillion, had been a skeptic, too — until this year. With such a large global business, he has become almost a head of state himself or, more precisely, as important as the head of a central bank, judging by the panel he is speaking on. Mr. Fink is the only business executive on an economic panel that includes Mario Draghi, president of the European Central Bank; Mark Carney, governor of the Bank of England; Haruhiko Kuroda, governor of the Bank of Japan; Wolfgang Schäuble, the German finance minister; and Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund.

Jeffrey A. Sonnenfeld, senior associate dean of the Yale School of Management, who counts many Davos attendees as former students of his executive management program, said that many C.E.O.’s attended every couple of years to “meet new heads of state.” But he said many executives “complain that significant decision-makers are too diluted in number by the tidal waves of aspiring consultants and other wannabes.” (Mr. Sonnenfeld does not attend.)

Others don’t go simply for practical reasons. “It’s inconvenient to get to. There’s a lot of friction. It’s cold. There are a lot of people there. The logistics of just going down the street can be very daunting,” John Kao, chairman of the Institute for Large Scale Innovation and a longtime attendee, told Bloomberg News last year.

To be sure, this year’s event will not lack for big names. Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain will be there, as will President Enrique Peña Nieto of Mexico. So will Jacob J. Lew, the United States Treasury secretary.

The progress they make — or try to make — may be praiseworthy. But at a time when globalization has so transformed business and economics, and at an event that bills itself as drawing the top stakeholders, it easy to understand why it is so difficult to make progress on the big issues when so many key people are not in the room.

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