INTERNATIONAL - As the gulf between the rich and everyone else continues to grow, at least 119 billionaires are converging on Switzerland next week to join bankers, politicians and other grandees for their annual pilgrimage to the Alps.
The elite group, worth about $500 billion, includes regulars like Bridgewater Associates LP founder Ray Dalio, Blackstone Group Inc. Chairman Steve Schwarzman and JPMorgan Chase & Co. Chief Executive Officer Jamie Dimon. They appear on a guest list of more than 2,000 names, representing roughly 100 countries, for the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos.
The event retains its enduring status as the premier networking hub for the world’s wealthiest -- with its attendant flock of private jets and $43 hot dogs -- even as it faces increasing criticism for its exclusivity.
“I’ve been going since 1979,” said India’s Rahul Bajaj, who will be making his 40th appearance at the event. “It’s grown a great deal since then but I continue to get a lot out of the meetings, the sessions, the surroundings.”
It’s no surprise he feels at home. He should be joined in Davos by at least 18 other Indian billionaires with a combined net worth of about $100 billion and business interests that include technology companies, steel mills and motorbike makers. Six are members of the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, a ranking of the world’s 500 richest people.
For some, the gilded guest list seems at odds with the event’s focus on creating fairer economies and remaking the world of work. This year’s theme is “Stakeholders for a Cohesive and Sustainable World,” and panels include “Balancing Domestic and Global Inequality” and “Breaking Legal Barriers to Equality.” Last year, a panelist caused a sensation when he slammed attendees for ignoring tax avoidance by the rich.
“I hear people talking the language of participation, justice, equality and transparency but almost no one raises the real issue of tax avoidance,” Rutger Bregman, a Dutch historian, said at a talk on inequality. He said in a LinkedIn post this week that he hadn’t been invited to this year’s event. Still, with 17-year-old environmental campaigner Greta Thunberg on this year’s guest list there’s sure to be plenty of attention on the establishment’s failure to tackle the climate crisis.
Such public shaming hasn’t dampened the meeting’s widespread allure among the super-rich. Billionaires slated to attend hail from at least 36 countries with shipping tycoons from Greece set to mingle with Thai industrialists and Peruvian retailers.
India’s contingent of 10-figure attendees is second only to the U.S., which has 33 heading to Davos, according to a Bloomberg analysis of a participant list. Russian tycoons are the third-best represented. Oleg Deripaska and Viktor Vekselberg are among the richest Russians expected at the event. Both are under U.S. sanctions and initially had some restrictions placed on them by the meeting’s organizers last year, although they were later lifted.
“The World Economic Forum in Davos is the only place of its kind where you can simultaneously meet heads of state, captains of global business and public opinion leaders,” Russian mining magnate Alisher Usmanov, an occasional attendee, said in an email. “It is noteworthy that the forum has remained like this for half a century. This is a unique melting pot of ideas and opportunities.”
Outside of the official participant list, there are always plenty of unofficial attendees and a long tradition of globetrotters jetting in under the radar. A longstanding quip at the ski resort is that the most important meetings are the ones you don’t know about.
This year’s guest list dwarfs the single page that contained the names of 25 people from 12 countries for the forum’s gathering in 1976. By 2010, billionaire participants alone accounted for four times that number.
Despite, or because of, this expansion, the meeting has become less appealing for some. With wealth inequality now an explosive political issue -- the richest 0.1% of Americans control more wealth than at any time since 1929 -- attending the gathering can sometimes even blemish your reputation. Last year, Starbucks Corp.’s Howard Schultz was twice interrupted by hecklers at a Manhattan event a day after saying in a TV interview that he was seriously considering a run for the White House.
One of the antagonists told Schultz to “go back to Davos.”