The first International Monetary Conference, held 43 years ago, was an understated affair.
The informational gathering, at Columbia University's Harriman House, drew the two most senior officers of the 50 largest U.S. banks and a dozen foreign banks, mostly European.
But much has happened in the decades since 1954 to transform this annual gathering into the world's leading summit on commercial banking issues.
When the 44th annual International Monetary Conference event gets under way Sunday in Interlaken, Switzerland, it will be anything but understated. Equally important, it will serve as a forum where bankers can sort out less publicized concerns behind closed doors.
"It's a great opportunity to look at some of the global issues that are facing the banking industry, " said Eugene A. Miller, chairman and chief executive of Detroit-based Comerica. "It's also a good opportunity to exchange information on what's going on in individual markets, meet counterparts from around the world, and build relationships."
Over the past four decades the conference has dramatically expanded its membership-to 105 banks from around the world, including most recently banks from Mexico, Japan, and Thailand.
Many of the original U.S. bank members have disappeared as large-scale consolidation has cut the number of U.S. banks. Today only 24 member banks are from the United States, and long-standing members like Chase Manhattan Corp., Citicorp, Comerica, and CoreStates Financial Corp. have become outnumbered by a much larger international contingent.
Issues confronting bankers when they have met in recent years at luxurious, high-security hotels in places from Seattle to London to Melbourne have also grown far more complex. Among them: the recent spate of banking crises in emerging market countries like Mexico, South Korea, Bulgaria, and Thailand, and what this means for the stability of the world banking system.
And as quickly as financial markets have internationalized, senior bankers who attend the conference, many in their 50s and 60s, have had to come to grips with a host of new and difficult issues. These include defining just how much capital they should allocate against new instruments like derivatives; whether the world should have a single banking regulatory authority; and how fast and how dramatically technology will effect the businesses they are in.
This year is likely to be no different. When the heads of the world's 105 biggest banks get together at the Victoria-Jungfrau Hotel under the presidency of Lord Alexander of Weedon, chairman of National Westminster Bank PLC, they will have a full plate of topics on the table alongside the smoked pate.
Among them: "The Balance Between New Revenue Streams and the Related Risk," "The European Economic Environment and Its Implications for Financial Services," Banking in Emerging Markets," and "Redefinition of Regulators' Roles and Responsibilities."