Every year, hundreds of the world's business and political leaders gather in the Swiss ski resort of Davos for the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum. It's an exclusive, invitation-only gathering that tries to shape the global agenda during five days of nonstop meetings, sessions, plenaries, receptions, lunches and dinners. Last year, the main topic was climate change; this year more than 2,500 delegates from 88 countries will focus on a theme entitled "The Power of Collaborative Innovation." And as always, it will be the behind-the-scenes encounters that provide the real substance—and gossip—of the gathering. NEWSWEEK Senior Editor Dan Gross joined us on Thursday, Jan. 24, to find out what the world's super-elite is saying about international politics, the declining dollar, the U.S. elections and which celebs have been seen where.
Lexington, KY: What are all the rich folks in Davos talking about in terms of their investments? Are they selling all their stocks?
Dan Gross: People are generally tight-lipped about their portfolios. I was at a lunch yesterday with George Soros, the billionaire hedge fund manager. One of my fellow reporters asked him where it would be a good place to put money to work at this time. Soros looked at him with a glare that was about as chilly as the air outside.
One big thing I'm noticing is a pretty big global divide. Americans here are somewhat pessimistic and freaked out. The Chinese and Indians are very self-confident and optimistic.
Troy, NY: How are people there responding to the U.S. stimulus plan?
Dan Gross: We're six hours ahead, so news sort of trickles in here. But I think the consensus was that something would get down, though it's surprising it happened this quickly, given the general mood in Washington. Some of the big political types who were scheduled to be here apparently cancelled because they wanted to work on the stimulus package.
generally speaking, people think it's good news. but if the intent is to avoid a recession, or a significant slowdown, it may have come too late--as stimulus packages almost always do.
Orlando, FL: Does anything really get done at Davos? Or is it just a bunch of cocktail parties for rich white people?
Dan Gross: It's more like a bunch of cocktail parties for rich people of all skin colors. Some of the companies with the biggest corporate presences here are groups like Tata Consultancy, the big Indian outsourcer. I've received about as many invitations from Chinese, Indian, Turkish and Persian Gulf countries and companies as I have from European and American ones.
But in terms of practical things getting done, I don't think much happens -- at least in the rooms in which I'm allowed.
Greenville, SC: The Democratic candidates have been very critical of CEO salaries and separation packages that seem to reward failing executives. Has this come up at Davos? Do any corporate leaders see runaway salaries and compensation (while stocks drop and the working man gets stiffed) as problems? Are they worried about a potential Democratic White House next year?
Dan Gross: Hi - thanks for the questions. Yes, this has come up. Massive separation packages are pretty much an American phenomenon, so Europeans and Asians are generally horrified/in disbelief when the see the numbers. There's a sense afood that American executive compensation is out of control. And, especially when you're talking about Europe and Japan, they have a much stronger sense that there shouldn't be such a massive disparity in wages between CEOs and workers.
And re: concerns about a Democrat in the White House? I'd say it's the opposite. The Bush administration isn't held in particularly high regard by the Davos crowd. Condi Rice was here last night and got a pretty subdued reception. She's the highest ranking American here.