Steve Mnuchin, United States Treasury Secretary, speaks during the Milken Institute Global Conference in Beverly Hills, California, United States on Monday (01/05). (Reuters Photo/Mike Blake)

Off Target in 2016, Global Elite Regroup at Milken Conference


MAY 02, 2017

Beverly Hills. Titans of United States industry and Wall Street gather in Beverly Hills this week to discuss how to navigate  and profit from  hot topics such as US tax reform, the upcoming French election and Chinese economic growth.

US President Donald Trump’s first 100 days and the next 1,000, as well as the outlook for liberal democracy in Europe in the wake of Brexit are also set for debate at the Milken Institute Global Conference.

The event aims to convene "the best minds in the world to tackle the most stubborn challenges," but political and market surprises over the past year serve as a reminder that predictions made by its roster of elite speakers are far from certain.

Most attendees expected Hillary Clinton to beat Trump, as The Carlyle Group co-founder David Rubenstein noted during a panel discussion in May 2016. And many did not predict a UK vote to leave the European Union. Former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair said in an interview at the event last year that voters were likely to do "do the sensible thing and stay."

Jill Posnick, the Milken Institute's executive director of communications, said it is natural that some calls will be off.

"We solicit multiple points of view and promote a free flow of ideas designed to solve world challenges, rather than making predictions about where the markets are going," she said.

See and Be Seen

The four-day meeting this year at The Beverly Hilton hotel will once again mix big investment industry names such as billionaires Jamie Dimon, Stephen Schwarzman, Leon Black and Kenneth Griffin with political, business and entertainment celebrities, including US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, former US Vice President Joe Biden, Cisco Systems executive chairman John Chambers and basketball great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Total attendance is estimated to be the most ever: some 4,000 are registered, up from 3,500 last year. Most conference-goers pay at least $12,500 if they are not from event sponsors such as Guggenheim Partners, Goldman Sachs Group and Two Sigma Investments.

Some repeat attendees told Reuters they come less for the investment advice and more for the chance to network, sell product and learn about far-flung topics.

"It’s about connections and to be seen," said a staffer at a large money management firm who asked not to be named. "Are there a large number of people actually taking notes and implementing them? No."

Last year, few money managers at Milken encouraged generic investment in US stocks, instead recommending relatively conservative or idiosyncratic bets such as private loans or even holding cash. The S&P 500 Index total return over the last 12 months was around 16.5 percent.

Slowing growth in China was also a source of fear. Hedge fund manager Kyle Bass, for example, warned of a potential 30 percent or 40 percent loss on Chinese investments, especially the financial sector. Bass called the situation "precarious," highlighting the point with a photo of an ignited bomb fuse.

China's economy expanded in line with expectations at 6.7 percent in 2016, according to the government, and the Global X China Financials ETF gained 16.5 percent over the last 12 months.

To be sure, there were prescient market calls. Sarah Ketterer, chief executive of Causeway Capital Management, said financial and bank stocks were a bargain. David Harding, chief executive of Winton Capital Management, recommended the bonds of beat-up coal companies. Steven Tananbaum, chief investment officer of GoldenTree Asset Management, also pitched selective emerging market plays, such as bonds of Mexican state oil company Pemex. All have rallied over the last year.