After Me, Jamie: The Pseudo-Egalitarianism of Davos

JPMorgan Chase Chief Executive Officer Jamie Dimon and I were left cooling our heels today outside the door of a filled-to-capacity World Economic Forum debate on whether markets are safer now than five years ago. He eventually got in, but not before I did. Because, hey, I was ahead of him in line. Earlier in the day, UBS CEO Sergio Ermotti—the top banker of the host country—was turned away at the door of another financial session.

So it goes in Davos, where the usual power rules are suspended for a few days each year, Brigadoon-like.

It’s not that Davos is truly egalitarian. The color of your badge strictly determines which places you’re let into. Dimon, Ermotti, and the other super-elite sail into private parties and meetings from which reporters are barred like so many cockroaches. Still, there’s something fascinating about a place where billionaires and heads of state mingle as temporary near-peers with journalists, artists, activists, scientists, and other members of the 99 percent.

The episode outside the door of the meeting room had an only-in-Davos quality. I got there late and waited by the door, hoping to be let in when someone else left. Then Morgan Stanley’s chief financial officer, Ruth Porat, showed up at about the same time as a couple of Wall Street Journal reporters. I introduced myself to the three, and chatter about bank regulation ensued. Then Dimon showed up and joined the conversation. It felt off the record and none of us took notes, so I won’t repeat what was said, but it wasn’t exactly breaking news. (Dimon did mention that he had met my boss recently. I guess I can say that.) Back home the interactions between execs and press tend to be more scripted.

The event that Dimon, Porat, and the Journal twosome were trying to crash was closed to the working press. But I have a white badge that designates me as a Media Leader (hah!). It gets me into a lot of otherwise-closed meetings even though I actually am working press. One of the Journal reporters eventually got the woman at the door to let us in. Dimon stood at the back in his typical Davos garb of suit and hiking boots, eventually leaving about 15 minutes before the end.

Despite being closed to the working press, the debate was webcast live and hence was on the record, which was strange. As to the content, the most interesting thing was the end, when the audience of a little over 100 was asked to vote using clickers on whether markets are safer now than five years ago. Considering all the regulatory efforts and bank capital-raising since then, the vote was surprisingly close: 62 percent yes, 38 percent no.

And then, after it was all over and the room had mostly emptied, Barclays CEO Antony Jenkins asked his debate opponent, Anat Admati, for a copy of her book, The Bankers’ New Clothes. The book says that banks like Barclays are dangerously thin on capital, but Jenkins was as gracious as could be toward Admati, a professor at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business. Admati autographed a copy for him and he said he would read it with pleasure.

Only in Davos.