Speed dating in DAVOS

Economic and political elite navigate World Economic Forum to gather information on global economy

Billionaire Nicolas Berggruen wanted to talk about economic and political governance at the World Economic Forum’s yearly meeting in Davos, Switzerland, this week.

If only the more than 2?500 business and political leaders attending would put down their BlackBerrys.

“Davos is a bit like speed dating,” Berggruen said. “The quality of the people at Davos is very high and when you get someone to have a conversation, it can be great.

“But it’s tough to find those conversations because everyone is so stretched.”

He was among a contingent of at least 75?billionaires joining the Alpine gathering, according to a list obtained by Bloomberg.

About half a dozen of the richest participants, interviewed in advance of the conference, said the European economy should be a priority.

“The euro crisis is entirely political and is unfinished business,” said Berggruen, who has been called the “homeless billionaire” because he roams the world in his Gulfstream IV jet living out of five-star hotels. “It’s a sovereignty issue and all the countries in the region need to prepare to give up a little sovereignty.”

The billionaires found plenty on the agenda, which included a session on the global financial context featuring JPMorgan Chase chief executive James Dimon and Elliott Management founder Paul Singer.

Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti addressed the gathering and so did Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund.

European Central Bank president Mario Draghi spoke on the future of the euro.

“I can’t get in to some of the events because many of them are full,” said Henry Ross Perot Jr, chairperson of Hillwood Development Company, his family’s Dallas-based property company.

“The side meetings you have with partners and bankers actually help with crowd control.”

Perot Jr was one of 18 US billionaires, the largest national collection, followed by India (with 17) and Russia (with nine).

Fourteen of the participants appear on the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, a daily tally of the world’s 100 richest people. Among them are US money manager George Soros, Mexican investor Ricardo Salinas and Alisher Usmanov, Russia’s richest man.

The wealthiest participant was Bill Gates, chairperson of computer software company Microsoft, who has a net worth of $64?billion (about R579?billion) and ranks second in the world, according to the index.

The richest people on earth got even richer last year, adding $241?billion to their collective net worth as global markets soared.

The aggregate net worth of the world’s top moguls now stands at $1.9?trillion.

Outside the more than 250 sessions and speeches – including cultural events such as Life Lessons from Jazz and The Garden of My Soul – the billionaires interviewed said they craved meetings with other executives and politicians, which often take place in private rooms at the forum’s Congress Centre, or in nearby hotels or restaurants.

Rich Stromback, chairperson of New York-based investment company Stromback Ventures, who has attended Davos since 2006, said he is coordinating meetings and parties for three executives during the event, which he called Burning Man for Billionaires.

Stromback said that attendees frustrated with the fast-paced networking during the day should hit the cocktail circuit in the evening.

Google, the world’s biggest internet-search company, didn’t hold its invitation-only party this year in Davos. The event, famous for the celebrities and political luminaries it lured, had been held at the Steigenberger Grandhotel Belvédère in previous years.

“I couldn’t give two hoots about the Google party or any other party,” said Rahul Bajaj, chairperson of Bajaj Group.

“I go there to make new friends and network, and to see what others think is happening in the world.”

The 74-year-old billionaire, who has been to Davos every year since 1979, said he planned to spend the week learning and enjoying himself.

He went to the session on the global economy and attended a private meeting with about 100 leaders on the International Business Council, listening to speeches by Monti and Lagarde, and hosted a nightcap at the Belvédère hotel.

“We already know what is happening in the world right now,” Bajaj said. “Europe and the US will not grow beyond 1% this year. The world might grow 2.5% instead of 3%.

“Emerging market economies aren’t growing as fast as they once were. It is understandable that companies might scale back the number of people they send to the event.”

Fon Mathuros Chantanayingyong, a spokesperson for the forum in Geneva, Switzerland, said the event was sold out and there had not been a drop in attendance.

Indian billionaire Malvinder Singh, chairperson of Fortis Healthcare, the nation’s second-biggest hospital operator, said he wanted to talk about Europe between speaking to other attendees and leading discussions on healthcare.

“Europe and America, if they sneeze, the whole world catches a cold. America’s economy will run better in 2013.

“Europe will still be a problem and we should all be talking about it,” said Singh.

Billionaire Adi Godrej, the 70-year-old chairperson of Mumbai- based Godrej Consumer Products, India’s second-largest consumer goods maker by value, hoped to discuss how economic conditions in Europe would affect emerging markets.

“The global economy is not in good shape. Democrats and Republicans came together to get the US out of its budget difficulties, but those issues are not resolved,” he said. “And it’s important to know where the eurozone is headed.”

Billionaires’ concern over debt-strapped, recession-hit Europe may be unfounded.

Investors are pulling back bets against the euro, signalling the worst of the three-year debt crisis has passed.

The euro has gained 11% against the US dollar since July last year. Spain’s 10-year bond yield has fallen to 5.12% from a euro-era high of 7.75% in July.

Godrej said it was also important to discuss corruption. A year ago, he was one of more than a dozen billionaires advocating for more talks on income inequality after wealth disparities helped fuel protests from Cairo in Egypt to New York in 2011 and the Occupy Wall Street movement cast the richest 1% as villains.

Formal discussions on the topic never materialised. Scores of Occupy Wall Street members protested the event by moving into what they called Camp Igloo, featuring the words ‘Capitalism Kills’ spray-painted into the snow in red paint.

Victor Pinchuk also wanted to talk about inequality last year. The founder of Interpipe, a Ukrainian maker of steel pipes for the oil and gas industries, hosted an event in Davos about philanthropy. It featured Gates and billionaire Peter Thiel.

“Davos is probably the one place on earth where you can get a multidimensional picture of our contradictory and turbulent world,” Pinchuk said.

“If we connected a giant 3D printer to the heads of the participants, we would get an accurate and dynamic model of today’s major trends.”

Perot Jr, whose father, Ross Perot, twice ran for US president as an independent candidate, said it would take a month of travelling around the world to see as many people as he can in Davos in three days.

“I also go to see what the conventional wisdom is among all the political leaders. The conventional wisdom normally isn’t accurate, and I usually do the opposite. But it’s a good thing to know.”

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