Billionaires Occupy Davos as 0.01% Bemoan Income Inequality


Jan. 25 (Bloomberg) — Ukrainian billionaire Victor Pinchuk wants to talk about income inequality. So does Irish billionaire Denis O’Brien and Indian billionaire Vikas Oberoi.

The three are among a contingent of at least 70 billionaires who are joining more than 2,500 business and political leaders at the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, this week, according to a list of attendees and promotional materials obtained by Bloomberg News. A half-dozen of the richest participants, interviewed in advance of the conference, say economic disparity needs to be addressed.

“Many who will be in Davos are the people being blamed for economic inequalities,” Oberoi, 42, chairman of Oberoi Realty Ltd., India’s second-biggest real estate developer by market value, said in an interview earlier this month by mobile phone from his car in Mumbai. “I hope it’s not just about glamour and people having a big party.”

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Oberoi, who’s attending Davos for the first time, and like- minded billionaires may have trouble finding the subject of income inequality on the agenda. While the forum’s Global Risks 2012 report, published this month, describes “severe income disparity” as the world’s top risk over the next 10 years, tied with fiscal imbalances and ahead of greenhouse-gas emissions, the word “inequality” appears only once in the event’s 130- page program, and that’s in the title of a panel about art.

Remodeling Capitalism

Some sessions in a series labeled “Ensuring Inclusive Growth and Development” will touch on income inequality, said Kevin Steinberg, chief operating officer of the forum in the U.S. A panel titled “Remodeling Capitalism” is scheduled for Jan. 27 at the Swiss Alpine High School auditorium, six shuttle- bus stops away from the conference’s main location.

Last year, wealth disparities helped fuel protests from Cairo to New York, and the Occupy Wall Street movement made the richest 1 percent targets. That hasn’t gone unnoticed by some Davos participants, including Azim Premji, 66, chairman of Bangalore-based Wipro Ltd., India’s third-largest software exporter, who in December 2010 transferred stock then worth $2 billion to a foundation that supports education for the poor.

“We have seen in 2011 what ignoring this aspect can result in,” Premji wrote in an e-mail. “If we don’t take cognizance of it and try to solve this problem, it can create a chaotic upheaval globally.”

‘Distribution of Wealth’

That view was shared by Pinchuk, 51, founder of Interpipe, a Ukrainian maker of steel pipes for the oil and gas industries, who is attending Davos for the eighth time.

“The global social-economic order will change, if we want it or not,” Pinchuk wrote in an e-mail. In a second e-mail, he said businesses should concentrate on both maximizing profits and assuring “a more just distribution of wealth.”

Pinchuk, who will host an event in Davos about philanthropy moderated by Chelsea Clinton, daughter of former President Bill Clinton, celebrated his 50th birthday in the French ski resort of Courchevel in December 2010 with several hundred friends. The party featured performances by Christina Aguilera and a troupe of Cirque du Soleil acrobats, according to an account in the Los Angeles Times. Dennis Kazvan, a spokesman for the Victor Pinchuk Foundation, which is sponsoring the Davos event, declined to comment about the party.

The best way to address tensions over income inequality, Pinchuk said, is for conference-goers and complainers to chat.

“The Davos men are ready for such a dialog, even more than the occupiers,” he said.

Camp Igloo

Some of those occupiers moved into what they call “Camp Igloo” in Davos, where 155 centimeters (61 inches) of snow was on the ground yesterday, the second-highest level recorded for a Jan. 24 since the Institute of Snow and Avalanche Research, based in the ski resort, started keeping records 66 years ago.

“This year, we will not let them exclude us, the 99%,” the group, OccupyWEF, says on its website.

O’Brien, the Irish-born chairman and owner of Digicel Group Ltd., a Kingston, Jamaica-based mobile-communications provider, said the Occupy movement deserves encouragement.

“They believe the financial community has behaved abominably, and some of them have,” O’Brien, 53, said in a phone interview from London this month. “They are serious people who have taken a stand, and they should be engaged.”

‘Last Continent’

O’Brien, whose company is worth about $4 billion, according to data compiled by Bloomberg, plans to spend much of his time in Davos encouraging European and Asian firms to build factories in Haiti, where 80 percent of the population lives in poverty, according to the Central Intelligence Agency’s World Factbook. Digicel, which has rebuilt more than 50 schools in the country since a magnitude 7.0 earthquake in 2010, is the island’s biggest employer.

“Corporations need to engage in giving a chunk of their profits to social issues,” O’Brien said.

Some billionaires aren’t interested in talking about income inequality or the Occupy movement at Davos.

“It’s all for the television cameras,” Henry Ross Perot Jr., 53, chairman of Hillwood Development Corp., his family’s real estate development firm, said in a phone interview from his office in Dallas. “They usually tell the organizers when and where they will protest in advance.”

Perot said he plans to attend lectures and investigate new investment opportunities, especially in Africa, where he owns a stake in safari operator Robin Hurt Ltd.

“That’s the last continent to have a boom,” said Perot, whose father, Ross Perot, twice ran for U.S. President as an independent candidate. “They certainly have the human capital and natural resources. The question is do they have the enlightened leaders to lead them there?”

Soros, Deripaska

Perot is one of at least 20 U.S. billionaires who will be at Davos this year, the largest national contingent, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. He’ll be joined by hedge-fund managers Steven Cohen of SAC Capital Advisors LP, Ray Dalio of Bridgewater Associates LP and George Soros of Soros Fund Management LLC.

Soros, 81, who has donated more than $8 billion to charity and has been going to Davos for 20 years, has said he’s in favor of increasing taxes on the rich. He “recognizes that income inequality is a problem,” according to his spokesman, Michael Vachon, who said Soros declined to comment further.

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