Bankers

Three grace notes as this year’s Davos stumbles towards a gloomy conclusion.

There’s an old saw, often used in government circles, that when it comes to public policy debates, if you’re not at the table, you’re certain to be on the menu.

The bankers have learned that lesson this year. Their low-key presence has itself achieved a high profile in the public prints. In their absence all the world’s problems have been laid at their door. No one would deny that in this economic car crash a high percentage of the blame should be ascribed to the financial sector. But not 100 per cent, I think. Bank salaries were exaggerated, definitely, but others benefited from the boom also, and should similarly have known better. There is an irony that an event strongly supported by finance should have bitten the feeding hand so firmly.

One of the biggest rounds of applause came when John Neill, chief executive of Unipart, the logistics company, said that if he had sold toxic products he would have been committing a criminal offence and would have expected to be in prison.

There was a frisson in the room. The atmosphere was such that a lynch mob could have been formed for the nearest banker. That got me thinking about the conduct of some of the bankers which has ranged from gross misjudgment to selfish actions in relation to bonuses and golden parachutes which really are totally unacceptable.

Another day in Davos, another bout of “commie-style” bank bashing. Or that, least, is what some frazzled financiers are now muttering as they slosh around the snowy Swiss mountains.

The frenzy kicked off at the start of the week with the arrival of Vladimir Putin, Russian prime minister, who addressed the opening session of the conference. With visible pleasure, he pointed out that “the pride of Wall Street banks” had crumbled, and railed against the folly of creating an economic system where financiers were allowed to run amok with “virtual money” and other forms of financial innovation.

It had to happen. Every crisis invariably gives rise to finger pointing. This one is no exception. Sooner or later, the scapegoating had to break out in the open. It didn’t take long. At a dinner I attended on the first night of the World Economic Forum, the blame game erupted with full force.

On this, my fourth visit to Davos, I have been curious to see if the recession has transformed the attitudes of the captains of world capitalism who come here to network. My past World Economic Forums have all been dominated by a smug, self congratulatory mood of corporate success and boundless optimism for wealth creation in the future.

True, there have been attempts by the organisers to stimulate thoughtfulness on environmental questions and some fashionable social causes like the need for cheap generic drugs against aids.

It’s a grey day in Davos, in every possible sense. With their celebrated attention to detail, the Swiss have provided weather to match the mood. Once or twice, the sun threatened an appearance, but was quickly obscured. And there’s not a green shoot in sight.

Why are people here then, one might ask, if it’s gloom and doom from cappucino to gluwein? I guess the answer may simply be that they come in search of some mutual reassurance.

Davos blog 2009

This blog is no longer updated but it remains open as an archive.