THE MT DIARY:

Howard Davies - director of the London School of Economics. Our man in Davos finds the US paranoid, the British low-key and the French in retreat.

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

This year's World Economic Forum conference in Davos lacked a great theme. Last year, the imminence of war in Iraq provided a strong focus for discussion. In 2002, in New York, the subject matter was obvious.

In 1999 it was the great dot.com boom; in 2000 it was the great dot.com bust, etc.

In 2004, as the new century gets into its stride, the agenda has become more diverse. A few interesting hares were started: the stalled WTO process creates high anxiety about the possible impact of a retreat to protectionism; the fall of the dollar - generally welcome up to now - could go too far.

The costs of adjustment are seen to be falling too heavily on Europe, as Far Eastern countries have intervened to prevent their currencies rising, thus dampening the current-account impact for them.

So there are potentially destabilising trends to worry about. And the Bush doctrine of pre-emptive strikes to change the regimes of unfriendly powers continues to create great nervousness elsewhere. Who will be next - Iran? North Korea? France?

Yet, overall, the mood among CEOs was upbeat. The US economy is growing strongly. Both China and India are racing away. The UK is pointing in the right direction, at least. Only the Germans remain gloomy: it's becoming a habit they can't shake off.

The star visitor was Dick Cheney, accompanied by a couple of divisions of American troops and security personnel. He delivered a careful speech, notable for its explicit recognition that the rest of the world exists. He was thought to have done well, although there was little informal interaction between his delegation and the rest. The US perception of its security needs, even within a heavily protected conference, rules it out. The Americans lose a lot as a result.

The official British presence at the WEF has been modest in recent years.

Tony Blair spoke five years ago when the Third Way was all the rage. Since then the Government's presence has been notably low-key, and Her Majesty's official opposition is totally invisible. Does this matter? Regular Davos hands certainly think so, and this year Digby Jones of the CBI, Vernon Ellis of Accenture and Niall Fitzgerald of Unilever organised a British lunch, in an attempt to raise our profile.

It was partially successful. We had expected Gordon Brown, but we got Patricia Hewitt instead. She, and her chief economist Vicky Price, popped up everywhere where trade policy was discussed. But that was only one strand of the debate. Jack Straw flitted in and out on day one. Otherwise, the UK was quite absent from the geopolitical debates. The imminence of the Hutton report made it a bad time, of course, but it has been the same for the past five years.

There was more interest, for once, in the future of universities in Europe. The British debate on top-up fees has attracted attention, especially in France, Germany and Italy, where their great universities are in an even more perilous financial condition than our own. So our new funding model is being touted as an example for the rest of the EU to follow, faced with the brain drain to the US.

There was even concern that major US universities might begin to colonise the continent with satellite campuses. So we were reassured to hear from Larry Summers, president of Harvard, that he saw little scope for cloning in higher education. Why is it that health clubs are often franchised, while country clubs are not, he asked. Because you go to a health club for the equipment and to a country club for the people. Universities, on this analogy, are more country club than health club. I have yet to find the 19th hole at the LSE, but I see what he means.

But, of course, it is not all policy wonking at Davos. Many people who don't go think skiing takes up most of the time. In my case, in 14 visits I have never yet made it to a slope. But it is true that there are parties galore, organised mainly by accounting firms, investment banks and consultancies.

For the past two years the McKinsey party has been the hot ticket. Michael Patsalos-Fox, who runs the American offices, and Ian Davis, who manages the whole firm from London, are still young enough to remember what a party ought to be. There's a band, with a girl singer like those Mick Jagger uses on Stones tours - pneumatic. And the music is so loud that you can't hear a word people say. After a day listening to interesting thoughts on the dollar from investment bank economists, this is a blessed relief. It offers a new possibility for the firm in its day job, too.

If McKinsey's advice was accompanied by loud background music, perhaps its clients would avoid expensive strategic errors in the future.

At Davos, evenings are taken up with freelance events. One such was a dinner entitled La Mission, where French goverment representatives, led by foreign minister Dominique de Villepin, would explain the French approach to global issues.

Although it would cost Sfr90 to hear these pearls of wisdom, it seemed an unmissable opportunity. Yet when I visited the website, the word 'cancelled' had been superimposed in large red type. Lack of interest, it would seem.

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