Davos Diary: Prime Minister May's reception as cold as the weather

Mark Kleinman
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Prime Minister Theresa May held discussions at Davos with key bankers (Source: Getty)

At the very least, this week’s Davos agenda had a weary air of familiarity about it: sustainability, artificial intelligence and income inequality all competing to be hailed the zeitgeistian focus of the world’s power-brokers’ power breakfasts.

In that respect, little has changed. But if the Trump presidential machine rolls into town this time next year, I suspect we won't be saying that again.

A Davos paradox

One of the paradoxes of this year’s Davos: the absence of political leaders who traditionally look most at home here – Angela Merkel among them – and the presence of others who appear distinctly uncomfortable hobnobbing with the global elite – namely, Theresa May.

After her crucial Brexit speech on Tuesday, the PM was always going to get a chilly, if polite, reception from the Wall Street titans who backed the Remain campaign in last year’s EU referendum.

Read more: Theresa May at Davos adds another sterling boost to send the FTSE 100 down

Their meeting yesterday was well-scripted, according to someone briefed on the discussion: a cautious reception for the PM’s pledge to ensure a post-Brexit “implementation phase” for industries like banking, and a commitment to work to minimise the damage to London’s financial centre. Talks in Davos rarely get any less polite than that.

Goldmine for ex-ministers

May may have been making her Davos debut, but it’s the former ministers who really thrive in Davos – via their bank accounts. It was like the WEFs of yesteryear this week when both David Cameron and George Osborne showed up to deliver speeches at events for PricewaterhouseCoopers and HSBC respectively.

The former Prime Minister is under no obligation to disclose the fee for his reaction to his successor’s Brexit speech, but Osborne will have to, given that he remains a sitting MP.

Read more: Osborne looks to carve out a post-Treasury role

HSBC paid him tens of thousands of pounds (or “his usual fee”, as it has become euphemistically known) to brave the -17-degree climate, but after years of clobbering the company for far more than that sum through his Bank Levy, perhaps it should have asked him to pay them instead.

Saudi oilman besieged by bankers

You wouldn’t win many prizes for guessing the most popular man in Davos this year: no, not Matt Damon, George Clooney or Jamie Oliver, but Amin Nasser, the chief executive of Saudi Arabia’s national oil firm.

Even the glimpse of his business card was sufficient to send the hordes of investment bankers perched at Davos’s Hotel Belvedere into a frenzy of excitement.

Nasser’s remarks in a series of interviews that Saudi Aramco remains on track for an initial public offering in the second half of 2018 mean the record-breaking flotation might be just 18 months away.

Read more: Saudi Aramco: London still in the running for mega-IPO post-Brexit vote

The clamour for a slice of that listing, already intense, is about to get much louder. With a bellicose Donald Trump in the White House, conventional wisdom has it that Aramco is unlikely to plump for New York, meaning that it may be London’s to lose.

Nasser was giving away little on that front, but if the London Stock Exchange’s merger with Deutsche Boerse really does happen – still no more than 60-40, in my view – what an early feather in the combined cap of the new capital markets behemoth that would be.

Staying mum on exec pay

For someone whose stewardship executives have been noisily assailing British boards on executive pay in recent days, the Blackrock chief Larry Fink is being surprisingly circumspect.

During an early morning wander around the lobby of the Ameron Swiss Mountain Hotel, Fink peremptorily dismissed my attempt to ask him about the asset management giant’s latest efforts to curb excessive remuneration.

Read more: Former BlackRock manager gets 12 months for insider dealing

“I’m not going there,” he told me. Which is a shame, since all I wanted to ask him was why Blackrock’s vow to vote against board members guilty of sanctioning egregious pay deals applies only to its operations in Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

Could it have anything to do with the historical gulf between boardroom pay in the US and elsewhere – a chasm from which he continues to be a lavishly rewarded beneficiary?

Nelson’s passage to India

Among the most common ice-breakers every Davos: the conversations between strangers comparing notes on how many times they have attended.

He may not hold the records for the number of times he has been, but one person who knows that 2017 has brought the curtain down on his WEF-trotting exploits is John Nelson, the avuncular chairman of Lloyd’s of London.

Read more: Dublin, Paris or Frankfurt? Lloyd's of London weighs options for EU move

As he prepares to bow out from the insurance market, with his successor to be named in the next few weeks, Nelson had some positive news to unveil: the gaining of a full licence to underwrite business in the nascent Indian insurance market.

It has been an epic passage to India for Lloyd’s, and an often frustrating one for Nelson and his predecessors.

Yesterday’s deal, though, provides a fitting note on which to retire. After 51 years in the City, Nelson leaves big shoes to fill.

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