And the prize goes to…Lehman Brothers

No prizes for guessing what is worrying the 2,500-odd delegates due to arrive in Davos this week (albeit probably not too visibly in their corporate jets this year). Within minutes of the World Economic Forum permitting delegates to sign up for events at the meeting, which starts on Wednesday, some sessions were hugely oversubscribed.

A worthy debate on how corporations can affirm the “community” (featuring Jamie Dimon, CEO of JPMorgan Chase) was not one of these; yesterday that still had plenty of space.

However, there was feverishly high demand to attend a discussion on protectionist threats. The session was immediately overbooked, perhaps by executives worrying about the potential parallels between the current global financial crisis and the trade controls imposed after the 1930s depression.

The discussion’s popularity highlights the startling shift in the political and economic backdrop to this year’s meeting. For most of the past decade, the Davos forum has celebrated innovation, globalisation and free market capitalism. It was a brew that appeared to have delivered stunning economic success for the global economy.

However, the chaos caused by complex finance over the past year has undermined admiration for innovation, while huge state interventions to prop up the financial system have shaken free market ideals.

And as the economic downturn intensifies, there are growing fears that the next step in the crisis could be a move towards economic protectionism – undercutting the concept of globalisation.

This week’s seminars will almost certainly include lively rhetoric about of the folly of abandoning those three ideals, as well as appeals for continued close global co-ordination.

There are also discussions about the role of the state in the economy and the future shape of financial regulation.

The Davos organisers sensibly decided not to run the sessions featuring keynote appearances from Wen Jiabao, the Chinese premier, on a “first-come-first-served” basis. Nor the equally symbolic opening address from Vladimir Putin. Getting those two names to travel all the way to snowy, remote Davos is quite a coup, and they will have plenty of time to express their views on protectionism or anything else.

There is minimal senior representation from the US government this year, since President Barack Obama has called key meetings this week.

However, another over-subscribed “first-come-first-served” event is a lunchtime debate on the mystery of the American dollar. A separate (but intellectually linked) analysis on the Chinese and Indian economies is highly popular too.

The prize for the biggest admission bunfight goes to Lehman Brothers. In previous years, the broker was famous for fielding formidably large delegations to Davos, and staging a glitzy dinner.

This year, however, there is hot demand to join in a dinner debate entitled “36 Hours in September; What Went Wrong?”.

Given the column inches already devoted to the demise of Lehmans in September and others, one might have thought the answer was already known. Apparently not: the event filled up within minutes of being posted and has the largest waiting list of the week.

Perhaps some of those attending Davos wish to gloat; or maybe they want tips on how to avoid sharing that fate.

Either way, it is hard to escape the suspicion that this year’s debates in Davos, in relation to Lehmans and much else, will include many more questions than clear answers; rarely has a meeting taken place against such a momentous backdrop of recent disasters and momentous current challenges.

For once the WEF rhetoric about the urgent need for global dialogue does not seem like a pious platitude.

Meanwhile, for those too late to get a ticket to ghoulishly peer into the entrails of Lehman Brothers, there are some competing attractions.

Tonight there will be dinner debates entitled “Businesses becoming social entrepreneurs” and “Leadership lessons from Shakespeare’s Macbeth”. Those sessions are still wide open to latecomers.

Gillian Tett is an assistant editor of the Financial Times and oversees global coverage of the financial markets

Davos blog 2009

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