I’m always too slow to get around to reporting about our great Fortune conferences. Once again, in the better-late-than-never category, here are a few thoughts from the Fortune 500 Forum, held last Monday to Wednesday (Dec. 1-3) in Washington, D.C., at the Ritz-Carlton hotel near DuPont Circle.
This conference draws together a group of CEOs and other big shots to go high level: the economy, corporate governance, state of the world, and so on. Officialdom made an appearance in the form of Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and FDIC Chairwoman Sheila Bair.
Regrettably, I flew in too late to catch Paulson. Bair I did see, and she is as impressive as I expected. A Kansan and a just-the-facts-ma’am type. She’s not charismatic, and she has a bad habit of swallowing the ends of her sentences. But she’s clearly smart and in control. And she’d like to not be asked by President-elect Barack Obama to leave her job before her term is up. (Clearer version: Bair wants to keep her banking watchdog job.) One question I’d like to have asked Bair but didn’t: Does the FDIC approve the too-high CD and money-market rates you constantly see troubled banks advertising in the newspapers? It’s so clear those rates are designed to pull in depositors and that the FDIC is on the hook to insure the deposits up to the regulated levels. As such, the FDIC ought to bless each rate before a GMAC Bank or Washington Mutual advertises it in the San Francisco Chronicle, for example. But do they? Does anyone know?
As for business leaders, one word describes the mood at the conference: bleak. Blackstone (BX) co-founder Peter Peterson sees the recession lasting through 2009, and he also forecasts housing prices continuing to plummet. Free-market types like Brad Anderson of Best Buy (BBY) and AT&T’s (T) Randall Stevenson didn’t have anything good to say about the stimulus plans being plotted by Congress. But they assume they’ll happen anyway.
On energy policy, a high-power panel moderated by my colleague Marc Gunther came to an interesting conclusion: A carbon tax would have a much bigger and better impact than a cap-and-trade system supported by both former presidential candidates and the Democratic Congress. I had one nagging question for the panel, which included legendary FedEx (FDX) founder Fred Smith, Conservation International’s Glenn Prickett, U.S. Shell Oil boss Marvin Odum, and Andy Karsner, the Bush administration’s former emissary to the alternative-energy industry: If a carbon tax is such a smart idea, why aren’t any politician’s talking about it? (The short answer: This debate is just getting started.)
One of the highlights of the conference was a dinner in the Benjamin Franklin Room at the State Department. Lots of china and portraits from the early days of the Republic, giant seal of the United States on the ceiling, that sort of thing. Rick Stengel, managing editor of Time Magazine, Fortune’s kissing-cousin publication, interviewed former Secretary of State Madeline Albright, now a consultant as well as Obama transition team advisor. She wasn’t any more upbeat than the business chieftains. She said Pakistan has “everything that gives you an international migraine,” including nuclear weapons, corruption and the like. She called Russia’s president, Dmitry Medvedev, “stunningly young.” And this was while she was just warming up.
Speaking of Pakistan, the following evening the group split up among several embassies and I was privileged to dine at that country’s well-fortified embassy. Ambassador Husain Haqqani is a charmer, a former journalist and academic who went into exile under his country’s previous regime and only recently came back into political life with the change in government there. Asked how the Pakistani people view Obama, a different diplomat explained that his people are emotionally excited about Obama but concerned because of his debate comments that he would attack Pakistan if necessary. (John McCain was more cautious on the question of Pakistan.) It’s a good reminder that while Americans suffer through the ennui of endless debates, people around the world hang on whatever words most impact them.
Two panels on our final day, one of which I moderated, danced around the topic of the role boards of directors play in over-the-top executive compensation. The severe recession will probably do more to address that problem than all the hot air that compensation experts and shareholder-rights activists blow on the subject. (Pearl Myer, a leading compensation consultant, made what sounded to me like a ridiculous comment, that boards have a tough time finding worthy candidates with industry knowledge. That didn’t seem to stop the boards of Ford (F) and Chrysler from going outside the auto industry.)
I asked every executive I could if they’ve been able to borrow money from banks. Western Refining CEO Paul Foster told me he can, but at rates that don’t make sense. He’s selling a refinery to pay down debt.
And in the crazy times category, James Turley, CEO of Ernst & Young, checked out of the Mumbai Oberoi the afternoon of the tragic attacks. We were pleased to have him at our conference the following week.