Howard Davies

MT's diarist on scrums at Davos; the weather foils Chirac; Mandelson carries it off; quirks of the Börse

by
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

It was the first time Angelina Jolie had invited me to a party, so I didn't expect to chat with her for long. And so it turned out. All events at the World Economic Forum in Davos turn into something of a scrum, and hers was more rugby match than reception. She was gracious on the receiving line, rather like a member of the Royal Family – though her private life is less racy, of course. Then for me it was on to an exciting conversation about Sarbanes-Oxley with a clutch of PricewaterhouseCoopers partners. They were writing the cheque for the drinks, after all.

Davos was a bit odd this year. Apart from Lara Croft, the stars were Sharon Stone and Bono. Digby Jones of the CBI was moved to complain that the NGOs and celebs had taken over the asylum. I guess Digby is paid to say that he'd rather spend time discussing the Multifibre Trade Agreement with Peter Mandelson than in a fatal encounter with Sharon. That is his problem. I've got over it since I left the CBI, I'm pleased to say.

The rest of us were perplexed, rather than annoyed. After all, Davos has always been two parts policy wonk, one part trophy wife and three parts networking. The only problem I could see was that Angelina wouldn't hand out her card.

The British reptiles have moaned for years that our government doesn't take the World Economic Forum seriously enough. Their self-interest in doing so is clear: without domestic stories to file, how to justify the not-inconsiderable expense of a ski weekend with the missus in the Swiss Alps. (The British economic press corps is almost entirely male, I should point out.)

This year they could hardly complain. Patricia Hewitt was here, there and everywhere, and Tony Blair inserted himself into the programme at short notice to give the opening address as chair of the G8 (Chirac's attempt to upstage him by arriving a couple of hours earlier was foiled by the weather). Blair's speech – in praise of the Reverend Dubya – did not go down especially well. A South African told me he sounded like Bush's Viceroy in Europe.

When Tony is there, can Gordon be far behind: 24 hours later there he was – with Bono – marketing his International Finance Facility. The Americans were bemused. One said it was like an elongated global primary: Blair and Brown touring the world campaigning against each other. The French, as ever suspecting perfidious Albion of a cunning plan, kept asking what le diable was going on. I referred them to Robert Peston's book, Brown's Britain [see book review in this issue], which will no doubt appear in France as L'Angleterre Brune.

There were, however, other topics on the agenda to rival Blair vs Brown. American corporate folk continue to be anxious about the effect on their markets of Sarbanes-Oxley. So Bill Donaldson of the SEC popped in to London on the way to Davos to say that he planned to give companies longer to comply, and to make it easier for foreign firms with few US shareholders to delist in New York. They didn't want the New York market to be a 'roach motel' from which unwanted companies could never escape.

He delivered this welcome message at the London School of Economics, which was nice. It also allowed me to say that given the weight of US capital in every international market – even if you are not listed in New York – they were just replacing the roach motel with the Hotel California, where you can check out any time, but you can never leave.

Another recent visitor to the School was Peter Mandelson, our brand-new EU trade commissioner. Though he has been in Brussels only a few weeks, he has managed to become intensely controversial. So our students greeted him with a blown-up caricature of him as a puppet whose strings are pulled by big business. It was a lively debate and Mandelson gave as good as he got, or even better. He called his speech 'Trade at the Service of Development', which helped. Clearly, he has resolved to guard his NGO flank first, so he borrowed Nelson Mandela's 'making poverty history' rhetoric. Some thought that a cheek, but he carried it off.

Rolf Breuer, chairman of Deutsche Bank and of Deutsche Börse, had an easier ride a couple of days later, mainly because his visit was organised by students in the LSE German Society. Of course, Deutsche Börse says it would wish to maintain London's high standards of corporate governance if it took over the other LSE. So it is a touch embarrassing that under German law it is not required to put major acquisitions to a shareholder vote. The board can do what it likes.

On the other hand, surely the US hedge funds that are now complaining bitterly about the absence of a vote were aware of this lacuna when they bought in? If not, there are questions to be asked about their own due diligence procedures.

The general City view seems to be that if the price is right, the deal will proceed. But I wonder. The big issues that scuppered the IX deal a few years ago remain alive and well. Where will the corporate HQ be? Which regulations will apply? Clearer answers to these questions are required if this deal is to reach the finish line.

Find this article useful?

Get more great articles like this in your inbox every lunchtime

Subscribe

Get your essential reading delivered. Subscribe to Management Today