Bankers return to Davos with a little less swagger

New York:  Bankers are trickling back to Davos, but they will not be strutting quite the way they used to.

With an economic recovery under way, the financial elite will not be in hiding as they were last year, when only a comparative handful showed up in Davos, Switzerland, for the annual World Economic Forum. But they will still be on the defensive. The prospects for tighter regulation, which seemed to be fading a few months ago, look more likely than ever.

Amid popular outrage about soaring profits and bonuses, political leaders and economic policymakers seem intent on making progress toward some kind of rulebook that would prevent another bank-led crisis of the financial system.

"We cannot afford to have a financial system which is as fragile in the future as it has proved to be in the past," the European Central Bank president, Jean-Claude Trichet, said this month.

The world's top bankers will arrive in Davos just as the political mood in Washington and other capitals is turning against the financial industry again. Last week, President Barack Obama called for laws to keep financial institutions from becoming too big, as well as restrictions on risky practices that include betting bank capital on securities markets.

In Europe, leaders are responding to voter frustration at having to pay for bank bailouts even as unemployment continues to rise.

The governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King, has raised the prospect of breaking up the big financial institutions in that country. Britain and France plan to tax banker bonuses, while European Union officials are working on a regional bank regulation agency.

Some bankers say they support new rules, at least in principle. The chief executive of Deutsche Bank, Josef Ackermann, a co-chairman of the World Economic Forum, said in a video posted to YouTube that he favored regulations on the amount of capital banks were required to hold, as well as better mechanisms for winding down sick institutions.

But there is widespread suspicion that bankers are hoping, now that the risk of a collapse of the financial system has retreated, to return to business as usual.

"In the midst of the crisis there was a certain willingness among banks" to accept restrictions, said Erik Bergloef, chief economist of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, which was involved in preventing a financial debacle in Eastern Europe. "Now what I see is a certain forgetfulness of what happened in the crisis."

Expectations are high among participants that Davos could contribute to the debate. "I am more optimistic now than I have been in recent months," said Barry Eichengreen, a professor of economics and political science at the University of California, Berkeley, who will moderate a panel on financial regulation featuring Trichet.

While all agree on the need for a sturdier financial system, the tough part will be creating uniform standards that apply around the world. Inconsistency would encourage "regulatory arbitrage" in which big banks set up operations wherever local rules are most comfortable, Eichengreen and others said.

The U.N. Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen last month, widely regarded as a failure, left some Davos attendees skeptical that countries could agree on a common course when it comes to financial regulation.

"The decision-making process stinks," said Ben Verwaayen, chief executive of the telecommunications equipment maker Alcatel-Lucent and a Davos participant. "You see national governments taking action depending on what's happening in their national theaters."

The World Economic Forum, which runs from Wednesday through Sunday, will have several panels on an overhaul of the financial system, which should help keep the issue on the public agenda. There will also be a series of private meetings of government representatives and bank chiefs, who will meet separately in Davos and then together.

After avoiding Davos last year - only months after Lehman Brothers collapsed and the financial crisis was at its height - bankers are cautiously returning. They will number 235, forum organizers said, a 23 percent increase from 2009.

Prominent financial executives scheduled to attend include John J. Mack, chairman of Morgan Stanley, Robert E. Diamond Jr., president of Barclays, and Brady W. Dougan, chief executive of Credit Suisse. The chairman and chief executive of Goldman Sachs, Lloyd C. Blankfein, is not on the guest list, but its president, Gary D. Cohn, will be part of a Goldman delegation.

The bankers will take a lower profile than in the pre-crisis days, however. That is all right with organizers of the World Economic Forum, who say that the event had become too focused on money and glamour. "Until 2007, there was maybe an overparticipation of the finance industry in Davos," said Klaus Schwab, the executive chairman of the forum.

Some bankers, like Stephen K. Green, group chairman of HSBC Holdings, are willing to take some blame for the crisis. "The fact of the matter is that banks played a significant role in the unstable conditions, and we have to learn the lessons," Green said in a statement.

But other bankers complain that their industry is taking all of the criticism for a disaster that was also fed by easy-money policies of governments and wanton borrowing by consumers. Stephen S. Roach, Morgan Stanley's chief economist, predicted that Davos participants "will fall into the trap of trying to figure out a way to blame the bankers and exonerate the politicians and central bankers who really condoned the era of greed and excess."

No one expects participants to emerge onto the snowy streets of Davos triumphantly waving a global accord on bank supervision. Even if there were broad agreement, any new regulations would require an extraordinary amount of work on the technical details.  

But the discussions that take place during the forum could help advance a process begun at the meeting of the Group of 20 developed and emerging economies in Pittsburgh in September, when members created a Financial Stability Board to devise uniform banking rules. One area of common ground that seems to be emerging is a requirement that banks stockpile more capital in good times to see them through the downturns.

Despite his skepticism about international decision-making, Verwaayen said he thought that the advantage of the annual pilgrimage to Davos was that it brought together a diverse group of leaders in an informal setting.

"You have academics, you have NGOs, you have politicians, you have business," Verwaayen said, referring to nongovernmental organizations. "Where else do I find that assembly of stakeholders?"

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