Global elite cautiously optimistic as Davos opens

DAVOS: The world's top politicians and business leaders opened their annual Davos meeting on Wednesday, hoping they might finally have seen the back of a crippling global economic crisis.

Kicking off a four-day extravaganza in the picturesque Swiss ski resort, the head of the International Monetary Fund, Christine Lagarde, noted there had been "some respite and some stabilisation" on the financial markets recently.

"The short-term pressures might have alleviated, but the longer-term pressures are still with us," she added.

While the 2012 meeting was dominated by the eurozone debt crisis and fears Greece could be forced out of the bloc, this year's gathering appeared to be marked by a feeling the global economy might be turning the corner.

"I feel the circumstances in which I'm addressing you today are very different than 12 months ago," said Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti as he delivered the opening speech.

And Axel Weber, the head of Swiss banking giant UBS and former head of the German central bank, said: "The economy has turned, most of the markets have picked up... the major economies are recovering."

Nevertheless, Weber warned that the recovery was "slow and muted" and warned: "In particular, one dimension is missing. Jobs are lost and are not coming back quickly."

The first world leader to address the forum, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, was also in bullish mood, telling the assembled elite that his country grew 3.5 per cent last year and aimed for five per cent growth annually.

But with the sunnier mood came also warnings that the three-year eurozone debt woes could resurface if regulators in particular did not learn the lessons of previous financial crises.

"If we do everything right, we will get out of this. If we don't, this could last another 10 years," said Jamie Dimon, chief executive of JP Morgan Chase.

Events elsewhere often hijack the agenda at the World Economic Forum in Davos and this year was no different, with British Prime Minister David Cameron's vow to hold a referendum on EU membership by 2017 setting tongues wagging.

To applause from the assembled elite, Monti said: "I am confident that if there is to be a referendum, the UK citizens will decide to stay in the EU and contribute to shape its future."

"I think the EU does not need unwilling Europeans. We desperately need willing Europeans," he said.

Leading British business boss Martin Sorrell, chief executive of advertising WPP, complained that the referendum pledge was "at best neutral and at worst negative."

"You just added another reason why people are going to postpone investment decisions and the last thing we need is people postponing more," said Sorrell.

Cameron himself was due to address the forum on Thursday, along with EU powerbroker Angela Merkel, Germany's chancellor.

The conflict in Mali and the crisis in Syria were also poised to exercise the minds of the global elite.

Jordan's King Abdullah II was due to make a special address and the premiers of Egypt, Lebanon, Libya, Tunisia and the Palestinian Territories were scheduled to attend, as well as Israeli President Shimon Peres.

There is also a heavy African presence, with the leaders of South Africa and Nigeria attending a session on "de-risking" the continent on Wednesday.

Despite the presence of so many world leaders, no formal decisions are taken at Davos, although corporate deals are often sewn up on the sidelines and presidents and prime ministers huddle in small gatherings to thrash out pressing issues.

The invitation-only meeting is also known for its informal luncheons and lavish cocktail parties, often hosted by corporate sponsors and with exclusive guest lists, where political and business leaders can network and mingle.

For its annual invasion from the world's most powerful people, the snow-covered resort goes into lockdown, with around 5,000 police and military guarding the venue and helicopters buzzing overhead.

- AFP/jc

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