In many countries, prospects for prosperity are increasingly fragile. Trust in presidents and CEOs, and the systems they represent, is drying up. Uncertainty lurks for the eurozone, and for Afghanistan, Syria and North Korea as well.
And now the Occupy movement has come to the World Economic Forum, an annual gathering of 2,600 decision-makers from nearly 100 countries and hundreds of companies that starts Wednesday.
VIPs in Davos are usually sheltered from critics so that they can solve financial problems in cosseted peace. This year, the global question-the-establishment wave has brought in a small band of protesters, with an igloo-and-yurt camp and anti-capitalist entreaties ready to greet the big bosses of business and world politics as they arrive.
Even the weather seemed to be working in the protesters' favour.
"In the last 42 years, I've never seen so much snow in Davos," forum founder Klaus Schwab tweeted Sunday. "Perfect snow to build igloos!" members of the Occupy Davos movement tweeted back.
With the list of global economic problems to solve so daunting this year, many Davos participants may prefer the more measurable and lucrative work of confidential corporate deals, a Davos hallmark. Politicians from the U.S. and other countries will be seeking investment in their districts, investors will be hunting out promising young entrepreneurs, and everyone will be looking for the year's next big gadget.
"The reality of Davos is that it can achieve things and it does achieve things every year. And that is business deals," said French political analyst Dominique Moisi.
Chief executives from China will garner attention, but Europe will be the damaged star of this year's forum. That's a painful irony for organizers who have worked for years to expand its reach beyond the Europeans and Americans who built its reputation.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel formally launches the meeting with a keynote speech Wednesday that may chart her course for Europe's debt crisis in the coming months.
The list of Davos participants is heftier than ever in its four-decade history, with nearly 40 heads of state and 18 of the world's central bankers. They're joined by business leaders, scientists, thinkers, pioneers for human rights and others for the invitation-only week of brainstorming that aims to set the global agenda for the year to come.
"It's the perfect barometer of the temperature of the world," Moisi said.
Four years after the subprime mortgage crisis and ensuing financial meltdown, growth remains anemic in the rich world. Many in Europe and the U.S. — especially those without work — feel betrayed by solutions that they feel favoured the very bankers and financial players blamed for the crisis. In rich and developing economies, income inequalities are on the rise.
The Occupy protesters are bringing a mix of grievances, inspired by protests that started around Wall Street last year and spread to cities around the world.
Their numbers may be limited here because of Davos' remote location, high in the Swiss Alps in a heavily guarded valley. Those who do make the journey face the painstaking work of carving blocks of snow and fitting them into an igloo, a job that takes four people about five hours to complete.
"We'll make small actions in the village, we're going to disturb things a little bit," said organizer David Roth, a Swiss leftist politician camped out for the week.
One of their banners reflected the disillusionment in developed democracies: "If voting could change anything it would be illegal."
Forum organizers warned earlier this month that financial troubles of the past few years are fueling resentment that could spark protectionism, nationalism and social unrest.
That's a particularly potent message for three world powers facing elections this year — the U.S., Russia and France — as well as for the Arab world after its string of uprisings.
Everyone will be looking for what organizers are calling "new models."
The overarching question for many government leaders will be how to restore growth despite rising debts and sinking market confidence.
Business leaders will hold private panels on how to employ more young people, restore faith in leadership, make cleaner energy more economically appealing, and profit from new technology.
Public figures expected include British Prime Minister David Cameron, Israeli President Shimon Peres, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, International Monetary Fund managing director Christine Lagarde, U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and Arab League Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby.
The forum runs through Sunday.
Angela Charlton reported from Paris.