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Market avalanches hit Davos talks

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  • World Economic Forum brings business and political leaders to Davos, Switzerland
  • Five-day event will host discussions that hope to shape global agenda
  • Now in its 37th year, some question whether it achieves anything
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By Barry Neild
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DAVOS, Switzerland (CNN) -- Avalanching global markets were expected to come crashing onto the agenda in the Swiss ski resort of Davos this week as world leaders and big business names gathered for the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum.

Economic woes are likely to be high on the agenda at this year's Davos meeting.

The five-day meeting, in recent years a chance for the financial world to celebrate bold expansion and strong growth, is likely to take a pessimistic turn as the threat of worldwide economic slowdown stalks its participants.

Just as last year's Davos meeting presaged its hot topic of environmental concerns with unseasonably snow-free ski slopes, so this year's appears to have been delivered its warning in the shape of market turmoil.

On Tuesday, share prices across Europe and Asia plunged a second day on fears of an impending recession, despite steps announced by President George W. Bush to inject life into the U.S. economy.

Soaring oil prices, the falling dollar, rising food prices, trade imbalances and a tide of protectionism have added to the broad economic woes linked to the slowing the U.S. economy.

Financial concerns and Washington's role in shaping the world's financial future are already on the agenda at Davos, where one of the key questions this year will be: "If America sneezes, does the world still catch a cold?"

Amid plunging temperatures and swirling snow, such gloom is likely to tone down what has previously been a star-studded event, which has previously enjoyed appearances by Hollywood actresses Angelina Jolie and Sharon Stone.

Stalwart celebrity campaigner Bono is still scheduled to appear -- as are fellow musician Brian Eno and English actress Emma Thompson -- alongside 27 heads of state or government and 113 cabinet ministers.

Among the presidents, Pakistan's Pervez Musharraf, Afghanistan's Hamid Karzai, Israel's Shimon Peres, Colombia's Alvaro Uribe, Nigeria's Umaru Yar'Adua and Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, are likely to draw attention.

Other big names include U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, Microsoft founder and philanthropist Bill Gates and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and his predecessor Tony Blair.

Middle East peace prospects are expected to be a key theme with U.S. Secretary of State and top negotiator Condoleezza Rice set to open the event on January 23 -- but financial fears are certain to dominate.

Davos organizer Klaus Schwab, who founded the event in 1971, warned that despite such an influential guest list, the 2008 meeting was unlikely to deliver any short-term solutions.

"You will not have decisions coming out of this meeting but you will have enlightened minds and hopefully everyone coming back to his political task, his business responsibilities, will go more or less in the same direction," Schwab told CNN.

However, Schwab said that because the U.S. sub-prime mortgage crisis that heralded the recent economic downturn, was one of a slew of factors driving market turmoil, the World Economic Forum was ideally placed to push discussion forward. Video Watch Schwab talk about corporate responsibility. »

"Look at this issue, of course there's the sub-prime crisis, but it's interconnected with so many other things: The raise of the oil price, the currency situations, starting inflation so we have to bring everything and everybody together to look at matters in an inter-disciplinary collaborative manner, that's what Davos is about."

Global warming, dwindling water supplies and the eradication of poverty are among other topics to be tackled by the forum, which is often dismissed as a talking shop that achieves little in the way of concrete progress.

With security tight around the remote town, there are unlikely to be any of the kind of anti-globalization protests that have surrounded other world economic summits -- although demonstrations have been held days earlier in the Swiss city of Bern.

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But organizers have attempted to encourage external debate by inviting people to submit their reactions to "The Davos Question" via Internet video sharing site YouTube -- one of several new media innovations that also include updates from a team of bloggers.

But Davos doesn't take itself too seriously. Seminars including "The Science of Love" and one on how smells affect business are likely to help break the ice for those looking to capitalize on what is also one of the world's biggest schmoozing festivals. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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