Michael Bloomberg, founder of Bloomberg LP, speaks during a panel discussion at the Bloomberg New Economy Forum in Singapore, on Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2018. Bloomberg is the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News. The New Economy Forum, organized by Bloomberg Media Group, a division of Bloomberg LP, aims to bring together leaders from public and private sectors to find solutions to the world's greatest challenges. Photographer: Justin Chin/Bloomberg
Michael Bloomberg © Bloomberg

Michael Bloomberg’s New Economy Forum, a conference launched by the billionaire to debate how the shifting balance of power between the US and China affects business, has been invited to Beijing, months after the trade war between the two countries forced the inaugural event to relocate to Singapore. 

“The fact the meeting is taking place in Beijing is a positive sign and a sign China remains interested in a dialogue,” said Henry Kissinger, an adviser to the event.

Mr Kissinger was Richard Nixon’s national security adviser, who laid the groundwork for the 1972 presidential visit that marked China’s opening to the west. “The Chinese leadership in my view are pleased with this process,” he said of the opportunity the forum would provide for western business leaders to meet Chinese officials and chief executives.

Mr Bloomberg, owner of the eponymous financial information provider and former mayor of New York City, told the Financial Times he thought current trade tensions were “short-term stuff”. The 400 executives and officials from 60 countries that are due to attend November’s event were focused on longer-term trends, he said.

Political tensions would not deter businesses from needing to understand China and other rising economic powers from Africa to Latin America, he added: “There are forces bigger than government and that is the economy.” 

His point was echoed by Jorge Paulo Lemann, a co-founder of the Brazilian investment firm 3G Capital, who said the forum’s first event had given him a rare opportunity to meet leaders of China’s technology industry. “I’m in favour of business and always had my doubts about people in government getting things done. I have a belief that businesses talking to each other makes the world go round,” he said.

The New Economy Forum will be co-hosted by Zeng Peiyan, a former vice-premier of the Chinese government’s State Council, who is now chairman of the China Center for International Economic Exchange, a self-styled “think-tank with Chinese characteristics”.

Hank Paulson, the former US Treasury Secretary who is also among the forum’s advisers, warned at the first event in Singapore that there was a risk of “an economic iron curtain” dividing the world if the US and China could not resolve their differences. 

That risk remained “a real possibility”, he told the FT on Monday, but Beijing’s invitation to the forum was a positive sign. “I know that China takes this very seriously and is going to be very supportive at the highest level,” he said. “More broadly, I think this is about, how do governments engage businesses to a greater degree, because they need to be part of this process?” 

The event comes at a time of growing debate about whether the west’s prevailing capitalist model needs reform. The forum’s guests were “card-carrying capitalists”, Mr Paulson said, but were also “realists” and aware of the data showing rising economic inequality.

“I think there’s a real view from many American companies, from me and others . . . that capitalism needs to be adjusted, that it’s not working as well as it needs to work for many Americans,” he said. “I think there’s a realisation all around the world that economic policies need to be adjusted . . . Prosperity’s got to be spread more widely.”

Mr Bloomberg said the fundamentals of capitalism were still strong but there was a rebellion against “the intelligentsia” in many democracies. “I’m not so sure that capitalism is as much at threat as democracy is,” he said. 

“Capitalism is just so basic it’s hard to see how you could change it other than at the margins,” he added, casting doubt on the chances of change should a left-leaning Democrat win the 2020 presidential election — a poll that until recently Mr Bloomberg was considering contesting.

“If Bernie Sanders is elected for example as president of the United States, Congress wouldn’t go along with most of the stuff he wants to do anyway,” he said.

The New Economy Forum will make a profit for his company, Mr Bloomberg said, and deepen its relationship with prominent customers. After “a hiccup” in 2013 when Beijing punished Bloomberg reporters after its news service published details about the alleged wealth of President Xi Jinping’s relatives, sales of its terminals were growing “very rapidly” in China, he said. 

Justin Smith, chief executive officer of Bloomberg Media Group, said discussions on the forum’s topics — global economic governance, trade, technology, finance, climate change, urbanisation and inclusion — would be informed by Bloomberg data and content and directed towards producing concrete recommendations.

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