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At Davos, Developing Countries Advertise Themselves More Than Companies Do

At Davos, Developing Countries Advertise Themselves More Than Companies Do

DAVOS, Switzerland — As cars slalom through the steep, narrow streets of Davos shuttling world leaders and financiers to and fro, bright banners for South Africa and India stand out against the snowy backdrop, a preview of the parties and exhibitions the countries will host later this week to deliver a simple message: hey world, we’re still here.

"South Africa: inspiring new ways," says one giant poster next to the convention center. Another claims India will have "the world’s largest middle class consumer market by 2030." Azerbaijan is touting its virtues on the sides of buses. Other countries are hosting government-sponsored parties like Tuesday’s "Korea Night." 

In the swirling conversations at the World Economic Forum here about who’s in and who’s out for 2014, countries are selling themselves just as much as multinational companies are.

Emerging market countries are especially eager to bat down predictions that their economies face tough times ahead this year. 

The U.S. economy has started to show signs of improvement, which has sparked fears that investors’ interest in emerging markets may be cooling. Analysts have singled out "the fragile five" — South Africa, Turkey, Brazil, India, and Indonesia — as particularly vulnerable in 2014.

Pessimists argue that emerging market countries may have overspent while it was easy for them to attract investment and that their economies could now begin to suffer as the tide shifts away from them. As investors’ gaze shifts back toward the developed world, the list of potentially vulnerable emerging market countries has expanded to include Hungary, Chile, Poland and others. Representatives from many of those countries are here in Davos trying to convince the world that they are still good investments. 

Aparna Sharma, who is running a cafe with food and spiced chocolate as part of a branding campaign by India’s ministry of commerce, says there’s even competition for space along Davos’ main drag.

Though attention may be shifting away from emerging markets, developed countries haven’t completely recovered from their own financial crises. The aftermath was clear on the faces of the chastised Wall Street titans and deposed bank executives floating through the halls. 

They’re still here, basking in and contributing to some sort of Davos consensus, though perhaps less directly. J.P. Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon wandered through the conference center Wednesday looking for someone to talk to. He demurred on my interview request, but commented that the U.S. economy seemed to be doing well, "thank God."

Later in the day Bono walked though the main hall with a swarm of Japanese officials, all walking very fast. 

As the smaller, newer economies jostle to burnish their reputations, Davos co-chair Christophe de Margerie says Europe, which is still limping through an ongoing banking crisis, should also do a little re-branding. 

"I think Europe should be reconsidered as an emerging country," said Margerie, CEO of French oil company Total, on Wednesday. 

I haven’t seen any posters for that yet, but there’s still time.