Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Davos: The Good, the Great and the Powerful??!!

Saigon Charlie's Comments: I awoke this morning to a BBC TV report from Davos in which the Presenter's last line was "Davos; the good, the great and the powerful'....I almost choked. I immediately thought of the movie, "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" as the real line which should have been stated. If you would like to see these same words in print, go here.

I knew Fox News was nothing more than a propaganda channel for the Elite, but has the BBC also become one as well? But I guess if you are going to pay Tony Blair 2 million pounds as an 'advisor' to J.P. Morgan to prepare him to be the E.U.'s first President, you can buy the BBC as well.

But we deserve all this. Noone cares really about any of this as long as the beer is cheap and every channel is full of mind numbing football.....

Davos Diary: Day Minus One

Jacob Zuma is in town. So is Emma Thompson. Ingredients for a memorable WEF writes Alec Hogg.

DAVOS - Here we go again. For the fourth consecutive year, back at a "once in a lifetime" event. Stuff to make any seeker of knowledge (aren't we all?) pinch themselves. Not really necessary that. A stroll in the sub zero freeze-zone does the trick.

This promises to be a very special Davos for the 2 500 global thought leaders gathered here for the next week. The last of the veneer disguising the world's very real problems was stripped away by the past week's stock market plunge. Investors are anxious. International leaders, many of whom are in Davos, are sure to mirror the concerns.

But whether the news is good or bad, the show will go on. As it has since the World Economic Forum was created in 1971 by the visionary Klaus Schwab, who just two months shy of his 70th birthday, still actively guides the organisation. Pre-Davos statements from the WEF's army of communicators keep emphasising Schwab's mantra: that the Forum is a force for good; that its purpose is to make the world a better place.

Fulfilling its mission is a lot tougher right now. That much became clear talking to the first person who greeted me on the bus from Zurich Airport. Michael Useem is Wharton's Leadership guru. His curriculum includes teaching MBA students while trekking with them in Antarctica and up Mount Everest. Useem, together with naturalist Jane Goodall and explorer Bertrand Piccard provided an unforgettable evening for those of us who heard their stories here a couple years ago.

He was the perfect companion on the two hour ride, asking questions, actually listening to the answers and offering some unique insights of his own. Useem is mad about Davos, acting like a sponge (he says) whenever he gets the opportunity to be here. That's been six times in all, the last four years consecutively.

Tapped into the US business stream, he's also an excellent source for insights into what's happening in the world's dominant economy. Useem worries that the US might be heading back for Spring 2001 when the bursting of the Internet bubble saw the country plunging into recession. He recalls written job offers for his graduates being torn up long after they'd been accepted. Companies just couldn't afford to hire. And after 9/11 hit in September, it took a ballooning of liquidity to eventually right the ship.

Useem describes himself as one who looks for the glass being half full and reckons there's hope. He says so far at least, as they have done every year before the big financial groups are still coming to Wharton to offer final year students job opportunities. This is a critical point, he says, as 40% of the business school's graduates end up working on Wall Street. But he frets that for the first time in years, people in his circle of friends and acquaintances have been actually been fired as companies cut back because of recessionary fears.

And like everyone else I spoke to today, his confidence has been shaken by the stock market plunge of the past few days.

FirstRand's Paul Harris, back here after a four year break, says he will be taking in as many of the sessions on the sub-prime crisis as possible. He hopes this will help make things easier to understand as "there's a lot of confusion still, nobody has a clear handle on it yet." And Harris warns that South African banks are not immune: "If Lloyds is trading on a five PE ratio and First Rand on eight........."

While the Useem/Goodall/Piccard session was my WEF highlight in five visits so far, tomorrow night could create a new one. The session I'm facilitating includes as a panellist one of the star attractions of Davos 2008, the magnificent British actress Emma Thompson. With her on the panel, a full house is guaranteed.

On arrival at Zurich, there was a welcome invitation from JSE chief Russell Loubser to join him, his deputy Nicky Newton-King, former PG boss Bertie Lubner and their better halves for dinner. They cheerfully told me it wasn't my sparkling wit they were after - but a guarantee that I could "get them in" to tomorrow's session. All are Emma Thompson fans.

Especially Bertie, a Davos veteran, who will forever be remembered by the SA delegation for shooting out of his seat during a Plenary session a couple years back. Actress Sharon Stone had spontaneously asked participants to join her in buying bed nets to attack malaria. Lubner, the story goes, thought her offer was for something altogether saucier.

So he was especially intrigued, over a traditional Swiss fondue dinner, to hear my discovery through preparing for tomorrow night that Emma Thompson actually turned down the role in the Basic Instinct movie which launched Stone into the big time.

Learning more about Ms Thompson unveiled some welcome surprises. Like the fact she is a two-time Academy Award winner, but only once for acting. The other was for her screenplay adaption one for the movie Sense and Sensibility. Also, she is a graduate of not just any old acting school, but holds a BA from Cambridge University. She's also a hot favourite for the WEF's prestigious Crystal Award presented annual to two artists who have used their art to reach out to other cultures.

And it's that quality, by the way, which is putting a small town boy from Newcastle into the same room as this incredible woman. Tomorrow night's session is focused on Diversity: Why it matters. And apart from Ms Thompson, panellists include the recently retired Prime Ministers of Sweden and Portugal, the head of the Jewish religion in the US, two amazing disabled women who have made a major impact on the world, a famous artist and more. Only in Davos would one get such an amazing cast together. Add in a subject that's open to all kinds of interpretation and we're clearly all in for a real treat.

Promises to be quite a busy day on the work front too. Opening day in Davos always is. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will do the metaphorical ribbon cutting with an address focussing on Climate Change (yes, the Bush Administration is finally on side) and Terrorism (no surprise there). That's a must listen.

Will also be among 2 500 delegates struggling with the annual brainteaser of deciding which of the 230 different sessions to sign up for - and hoping, that unlike last year, will beat the "sorry, we're full" response to the electronic request.

If anything, there's even more heavyweights to choose from this year with 27 Heads of State here (24 in 2006) and 113 cabinet ministers (up from 85).

In private, the politicos will surely be trying to dispel results of Gallup research that polled 61 600. Released on the eve of the Forum it states 60% of people around the world believe politicians are dishonest. Africa, by the way, was in joint second worst position alongside the US with a 71% thumbs down. Latin America had the dubious honour of top spot with 77% of the interviewees saying they believe politicians are crooks.

For me, apart from crossings to Moneyweb's radio shows, there is Power Lunch with a difference for CNBC Africa. So will be able to pass on impressions from some of SA's business leaders interviewed live in the icy mountain air in the late afternoon. There's time to swap notes, too, at the traditional opening lunch when the SA delegation gets together for an update on what's going on back home. You never know who you might end up chatting to here. So best have the facts straight.

Surprise guest at tomorrow's lunch, at least for me, is JZ himself. The controversial ANC Chairman Jacob Zuma is making his first trip to Davos. Apparently Thabo Mbeki, so often thrust into the limelight here, felt it more appropriate that his successor attend. Some might be hoping history repeats itself.

In Nelson Mandela arrived in the Alpine village as a devout socialist. He left realising that the world had changed irreversibly when the Berlin Wall crumbled. For the new ANC leader, it will hopefully be a similar conversion, but on a different front. While he clearly appreciates the benefits of free enterprise, Zuma has a distorted and somewhat naive interpretation of the role of the media. Weffers may well provide different insights.

Mostly on Team JZ, though, one hopes his bodyguards get to understand what behaviour is appropriate in a place like this. They clearly partook of a few free champagnes too many at tonight's welcoming cocktail party. That kind of behaviour is noticed. And does little to support Zuma's task here which must surely be to dispel rather than enforce current perceptions surrounding the country's President In Waiting.

* Alec Hogg is Moneyweb's editor-in-chief. He hosts the Moneyweb Power Hour on Radio 2000 weeknights between 6pm and 7pm (rebroadcast in Johannesburg on Radio Today 1485AM between 7pm and 8pm); and Power Lunch with Moneyweb on CNBC Africa TV between 12:30pm and 1pm weekdays. To have Boardroom Talk sent weekly to your inbox, subscribe at moneyweb.co.za/mw/view/mw/en/page97.

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