Billionaire Nicolas Berggruen wants to talk about economic and political governance at the World Economic Forum’s annual 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, 51, said in an interview at Bloomberg’s headquarters in New York. “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.”
Berggruen is among a contingent of at least 75 billionaires joining the Alpine gathering, according to a list of attendees and promotional materials obtained by Bloomberg News. About a half-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 will find plenty on the agenda, which includes a session this morning on the Global Financial Context, featuring JPMorgan Chase & Co. Chief Executive Officer Jamie Dimon and Elliott Management Corp. founder Paul Singer, according to the forum’s program.
Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti will address the gathering at 5:45 p.m., followed by a speech from Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund. European Central Bank President Mario Draghi is scheduled to speak on the “Future of the Euro” Friday.
“I can’t get in to some of the events because many of them are full,” Henry Ross Perot Jr., 54, chairman of Hillwood Development Co., his family’s Dallas-based real estate company, said by phone from London two days ago. “The side meetings you have with partners and bankers actually help with crowd control.”
Perot is one of 18 U.S. 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 U.S. money manager George Soros, Mexican investor Ricardo Salinas, and Alisher Usmanov, Russia’s richest man.
The wealthiest participant is Bill Gates, who has a net worth of $64 billion and ranks second in the world, according to the index, which was released on the Bloomberg Professional Service last March. Today, Bloomberg.com unveiled the ranking with transparent net worth calculations and data visualization.
The richest people on the planet got even richer in 2012, 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 crave 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, chairman of New York-based investment company Stromback Ventures, says he’s coordinating meetings and parties for three executives during the event, which he called “Burning Man for billionaires.” He said that attendees frustrated with the fast-paced networking during the day should hit the cocktail circuit at night.
Stromback, who has attended Davos since 2006, last year hosted a soiree with Facebook Inc. co-founder Sean Parker at the piano bar in the Hotel Europe that was attended by billionaire Steve Cohen of Greenwich, Connecticut-based SAC Capital Advisors LP and Chelsea Clinton, daughter of former U.S. president Bill Clinton.
This year, he said, he will focus on smaller events in chalets in the Swiss mountains.
“There’s definitely a shift to private, elite events and less public cocktail parties,” he said in a phone interview on Jan. 10.
Google Inc., the world’s biggest Internet-search company, won’t hold its invitation-only party this year in Davos, the company said in an e-mailed statement Jan. 8 without giving a reason for canceling the party.
The event, famous for the celebrities and political luminaries it lured, had been held at the Steigenberger Grandhotel Belvedere in previous years. The dance floor attracted guests including Gary Cohn, Goldman Sachs Group Inc. president and chief operating officer, and Cohen of SAC.
“I couldn’t give two hoots about the Google party or any other party,” said Rahul Bajaj, chairman of Bajaj Group, in a phone interview Jan. 11 from his home in Pune. “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 plans to spend the week learning and enjoying himself. Today, he will go to the session on the global economy, attend a private meeting with about 100 leaders on the International Business Council, listen to the speeches by Monti and Lagarde, and host a nightcap from 10 p.m. to midnight at the Belvedere hotel.
“We already know what is happening in the world right now,” he said. “Europe and the U.S. will not grow beyond 1 percent this year. The world might grow 2.5 percent instead of 3 percent. 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.”
Some who usually join the conference will not be in town. Switzerland’s Ernesto Bertarelli, 47, will not be attending this year, according to an e-mail from his Geneva-based spokesman, Mark Bolland, who said the world’s 55th-richest man will be in the U.S. for business. Bertarelli is worth $15 billion, according to the Bloomberg ranking.
Fon Mathuros Chantanayingyong, a spokeswoman for the forum in Geneva, said the event is sold out and there had not been a drop in attendance.
Indian billionaire Malvinder Singh, 40, chairman of Fortis Healthcare Ltd., the country’s second-biggest hospital operator, said he wants to talk about Europe between speaking to other attendees and leading discussions on health care.
“Europe and America -- if they sneeze, the whole world catches a cold,” he said by phone from Singapore on Jan. 8. “America’s economy will run better in 2013. Europe will still be a problem, and we should all be talking about it.”
Billionaire Adi Godrej, the 70-year-old chairman of Mumbai-based Godrej Consumer Products Ltd., India’s second-largest consumer goods maker by value, said he hopes to discuss how economic conditions in Europe will affect emerging markets.
“The global economy is not in good shape,” he said in a phone interview on Jan. 10. “Democrats and Republicans came together to get the U.S. out of its budget difficulties, but those issues are not resolved. And it’s important to know where the euro zone is headed.”
Billionaires’ concern over debt-strapped, recession-hit Europe may be unfounded. Investors are pulling back bets against the euro, signaling the worst of the three-year debt crisis has passed. The euro has gained 11 percent against the dollar since July and is trading at $1.33, up from its 1999 initial value of $1.18. Spain’s 10-year bond yield has fallen to 5.12 percent from a euro-era high of 7.75 percent 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 to New York in 2011 and the Occupy Wall Street movement cast the richest 1 percent as villains.
Formal discussions on the topic never materialized. Scores of Occupy protesters 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, 52, also wanted to talk about inequality last year. The founder of Interpipe, a Ukrainian maker of steel pipes for the oil and gas industries, will host an event in Davos tomorrow about philanthropy, featuring Bill Gates and billionaire Peter Thiel.
“Davos is probably the one place on the Earth where you can get a multidimensional picture of our contradictory and turbulent world,” Pinchuk said in an e-mail sent by Dennis Kazvan, a spokesman for his foundation. “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.”
Hillwood’s Perot, whose father, Ross Perot, twice ran for U.S. president as an independent candidate, said it would take him a month of traveling 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 amongst all the political leaders,” he said. “The conventional wisdom normally isn’t accurate, and I usually do the opposite. But it’s a good thing to know.”