The annual World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, which Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Finance Minister Grant Robertson are attending today, is well timed for New Zealand's political and economic leaders. It comes straight after their summer break when they have had time to ponder the sort of long-term trends and challenges facing all advanced economies, including their own, and before they are caught up daily politics for another year.

Northern hemisphere leaders are not so lucky, which is why Britain's Theresa May, France's Emmanuel Macron and Canada's Justin Trudeau, among others, are not at Davos today. All have more pressing problems at home. Donald Trump, who is not there either, has the Unites States Federal Government partly shut down over the Democrats' refusal to fund his Mexican border wall. But Trump would probably not have attended anyway.

Three days ago Trump cancelled the planned US delegation's trip as part of the shutdown. It hardly matters, Davos is a conference of internationalism, the antithesis of America First. In fact one of the main problems Davos undoubtedly is discussing is the risk to all modern economies and world trade from the defensive, protective nationalism that has emerged in recent years.

The "global elite", as media describe attendees, are meeting in the Swiss ski resort with the general economic outlook somewhat gloomy. Bloomberg reported business leaders and economists heading to the summit are less optimistic than they were a year ago when Europe was coming out of its long post-crisis slump. They expect lower international growth forecasts and data from China showing its 2018 expansion was the slowest for three decades.

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Among the companies sending executives to the forum, BlackRock has just announced it is cutting jobs, Societe Generale expects its latest quarterly trading revenue to be down 20 per cent, JP Morgan missed its profit estimates last week and fears the US economy will stop growing if the government shutdown continues.

But the value of Davos has never depended on the names of those present or their ability to confect a formula of words as a response to problems of the moment. Almost unique among international gatherings at this level it does not strive for agreements and issue a communique. It is more of a "retreat" where public and private sector leaders can listen to some of the latest economic thinking, compare notes, share their views and experiences, make contacts, strengthen networks, away from the glare of cameras. Davos does not offer much drama.

It might be particularly valuable for our Prime Minister and Finance Minister because they are venturing into new economic thinking this year with what they are calling a "wellbeing Budget". They hope to develop measures of personal, social and environmental wellbeing that could become at least as important as GDP growth in charting a nation's health and progress. It's a big idea, easier said than done, but other countries are thinking about it too. If Davos helps to bring that sort of project into better focus it will be worth the trip.