Ukrainian billionaire Victor Pinchuk wants to talk about income inequality. So does Irish billionaire Denis O’Brien and Indian billionaire Vikas Oberoi.
The three are among a contingent of at least 70 billionaires who are joining more than 2,500 business and political leaders at the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, this week, according to a list of attendees and promotional materials obtained by Bloomberg News. A half-dozen of the richest participants, interviewed in advance of the conference, say economic disparity needs to be addressed.
“Many who will be in Davos are the people being blamed for economic inequalities,” Oberoi, 42, chairman of Oberoi Realty Ltd., India’s second-biggest real estate developer by market value, said in an interview earlier this month by mobile phone from his car in Mumbai. “I hope it’s not just about glamour and people having a big party.”
Oberoi, who’s attending Davos for the first time, and like-minded billionaires may have trouble finding the subject of income inequality on the agenda. While the forum’s Global Risks 2012 report, published this month, describes “severe income disparity” as the world’s top risk over the next 10 years, tied with fiscal imbalances and ahead of greenhouse-gas emissions, the word “inequality” appears only once in the event’s 130-page program, and that’s in the title of a panel about art.
Some sessions in a series labeled “Ensuring Inclusive Growth and Development” will touch on income inequality, said Kevin Steinberg, chief operating officer of the forum in the U.S. A panel titled “Remodeling Capitalism” is scheduled for Jan. 27 at the Swiss Alpine High School auditorium, six shuttle-bus stops away from the conference’s main location.
Last year, wealth disparities helped fuel protests from Cairo to New York, and the Occupy Wall Street movement made the richest 1 percent targets. That hasn’t gone unnoticed by some Davos participants, including Azim Premji, 66, chairman of Bangalore-based Wipro Ltd., India’s third-largest software exporter, who in December 2010 transferred stock then worth $2 billion to a foundation that supports education for the poor.
“We have seen in 2011 what ignoring this aspect can result in,” Premji wrote in an e-mail. “If we don’t take cognizance of it and try to solve this problem, it can create a chaotic upheaval globally.”
‘Distribution of Wealth’
That view was shared by Pinchuk, 51, founder of Interpipe, a Ukrainian maker of steel pipes for the oil and gas industries, who is attending Davos for the eighth time.
“The global social-economic order will change, if we want it or not,” Pinchuk wrote in an e-mail. In a second e-mail, he said businesses should concentrate on both maximizing profits and assuring “a more just distribution of wealth.”
Pinchuk, who will host an event in Davos about philanthropy moderated by Chelsea Clinton, daughter of former President Bill Clinton, celebrated his 50th birthday in the French ski resort of Courchevel in December 2010 with several hundred friends. The party featured performances by Christina Aguilera and a troupe of Cirque du Soleil acrobats, according to an account in the Los Angeles Times. Dennis Kazvan, a spokesman for the Victor Pinchuk Foundation, which is sponsoring the Davos event, declined to comment about the party.
The best way to address tensions over income inequality, Pinchuk said, is for conference-goers and complainers to chat.
“The Davos men are ready for such a dialog, even more than the occupiers,” he said.
Some of those occupiers moved into what they call “Camp Igloo” in Davos, where 155 centimeters (61 inches) of snow was on the ground yesterday, the second-highest level recorded for a Jan. 24 since the Institute of Snow and Avalanche Research, based in the ski resort, started keeping records 66 years ago.
“This year, we will not let them exclude us, the 99%,” the group, OccupyWEF, says on its website.
O’Brien, the Irish-born chairman and owner of Digicel Group Ltd., a Kingston, Jamaica-based mobile-communications provider, said the Occupy movement deserves encouragement.
“They believe the financial community has behaved abominably, and some of them have,” O’Brien, 53, said in a phone interview from London this month. “They are serious people who have taken a stand, and they should be engaged.”
O’Brien, whose company is worth about $4 billion, according to data compiled by Bloomberg, plans to spend much of his time in Davos encouraging European and Asian firms to build factories in Haiti, where 80 percent of the population lives in poverty, according to the Central Intelligence Agency’s World Factbook. Digicel, which has rebuilt more than 50 schools in the country since a magnitude 7.0 earthquake in 2010, is the island’s biggest employer.
“Corporations need to engage in giving a chunk of their profits to social issues,” O’Brien said.
Some billionaires aren’t interested in talking about income inequality or the Occupy movement at Davos.
“It’s all for the television cameras,” Henry Ross Perot Jr., 53, chairman of Hillwood Development Corp., his family’s real estate development firm, said in a phone interview from his office in Dallas. “They usually tell the organizers when and where they will protest in advance.”
Perot said he plans to attend lectures and investigate new investment opportunities, especially in Africa, where he owns a stake in safari operator Robin Hurt Ltd.
“That’s the last continent to have a boom,” said Perot, whose father, Ross Perot, twice ran for U.S. President as an independent candidate. “They certainly have the human capital and natural resources. The question is do they have the enlightened leaders to lead them there?”
Perot is one of at least 20 U.S. billionaires who will be at Davos this year, the largest national contingent, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. He’ll be joined by hedge-fund managers Steven Cohen of SAC Capital Advisors LP, Ray Dalio of Bridgewater Associates LP and George Soros of Soros Fund Management LLC.
Soros, 81, who has donated more than $8 billion to charity and has been going to Davos for 20 years, has said he’s in favor of increasing taxes on the rich. He “recognizes that income inequality is a problem,” according to his spokesman, Michael Vachon, who said Soros declined to comment further.
More than half of international investors say income inequality hampers economic growth, according to a Bloomberg survey published today. The Jan. 23-24 poll of 1,209 investors, analysts and traders who are Bloomberg subscribers also found that 31 percent don’t think it’s appropriate for government policy to address the issue. Overall, almost one in three surveyed back radical changes to the capitalist system.
The country with the second-highest number of billionaires registered for the conference is India, with at least 16. Russia will send at least 12, including Oleg Deripaska, chief executive officer of United Co. Rusal, the world’s largest aluminum producer, and Viktor Vekselberg, the company’s chairman, who owns about 16 percent along with partners.
Vekselberg, 54, called on Davos’s “unprecedented collective of the world’s influencers” to cooperate amid what he described as a “very somber economic context.”
“In some cases, more impact can happen over a cup of coffee than in days or weeks of formal discussions if the right people connect,” he wrote in an e-mail.
‘New Ways Out’
Deripaska, 44, said if Davos participants can find “new ways out of the global political and economy instability” at this year’s meeting, “criticism will go down.”
One Russian 10-figure tycoon, Roustam Tariko, who controls Russian Standard Corp., which has interests in banking and vodka, wrote in an e-mail that economic equality will be one of the most important issues at the conference and is “key not only to domestic stability but also to the relationship between the post-industrial world and developing countries.”
Tariko, 49, echoed Perot’s views about Occupy protesters.
“The current movement has no strategy and purpose and hence doesn’t look serious to me,” he wrote.
Tariko said he’d rather talk about how political instability is undermining the global economy. That would suit Adi Godrej, chairman of Godrej Group, a Mumbai-based conglomerate with interests ranging from chemicals to real estate. He said delegates should focus on policy discussions aimed at fixing the economy, especially in Asia.
“China and India must realize that a lot of global recovery will be based on how well they implement reforms,” said Godrej, 69, who called Davos “a good working holiday” that saves him weeks of travel each year because of the number of people he can see in a short period of time.
Still, many of the billionaires interviewed in advance of the meeting said the widening gulf between rich and poor was a great concern.
“These growing inequalities are not acceptable,” said Rahul Bajaj, chairman of Bajaj Group, who valued his holdings in the Mumbai-based conglomerate at $1 billion. “The rich have done much better than the poor, and that creates problems.”
Bajaj, 73, who has been to Davos every year since 1979, said economic development should be encouraged through a mix of state and private-sector incentives. Governments could then invest additional tax revenue in infrastructure, education, food and water to benefit those below the poverty line, he said.
For Nicolas Berggruen, 50, who parlayed a trust fund worth about $250,000 into a fortune of at least $2.5 billion, according to data compiled by Bloomberg, policy discussions at Davos have value. Berggruen, who has been called the “homeless billionaire” because he roams the world in his Gulfstream IV jet living out of five-star hotels, said he will mostly be a listener in the conversation.
“There is a serious crisis of governance in the West, and the U.S. has many misconceptions about China,” he said from a hotel room in Singapore. “These issues lead to the symptoms that cause movements like Occupy Wall Street. We must talk about those symptoms. That makes Davos more relevant than ever.”