“The solutions to our problems are found in business, outside of government.” — Tony Blair, 2013 Milken Conference
Since the 1970s, I’ve been a big fan of attending conferences as a great way to learn, network, socialize and enjoy a new environment. It’s always refreshing to get out and see a whole new world. I also use these opportunities to find new ways to improve my own conferences that I’ve been doing since the 1980s (Financial Privacy Seminar in Beverly Hills, the Global Summit in the Bahamas and FreedomFest in Las Vegas, among others). So I attend regularly, perhaps more than any other investment writer, a variety of conferences. They include the Money Shows, the New Orleans conference, American Economic Association meetings, the Association of Private Enterprise Education (APEE) conference, the SkyBridge Alternatives (SALT) conference, Investment U, and a variety of one-day seminars in New York City and elsewhere.
For the past three years, I’ve been going to the prestigious Milken Conference at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in April, produced by financier and philanthropist Michael Milken. The Los Angeles-area conference is one of the most expensive ones around. Here’s my inside report for you.
Every year, Milken brings together top experts and lots of famous people to inform us of the latest advances and to discuss both sides of critical problems facing the global economy. I am an annual sponsor of the Milken Institute.
Despite the high entrance fee (or maybe because of it), the conference is sold out. This year was no disappointment. In many cases, I had the opportunity to meet investment, media and political luminaries such as Mexican Carlos Slim (the world’s wealthiest man), former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Microsoft’s Bill Gates, retired talk show host Larry King, media mogul Rupert Murdoch, ex-Vice President Al Gore, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and, of course, financier Michael Milken. The conference attracts a large number of Wall Street analysts, economists and CEOs, such as Robert Rubin, T. Boone Pickens, Peter Thiel, Steve Case (AOL) and Elon Musk (PayPal). Musk said his mentor is Ben Franklin. Gary Becker, Nobel Prize economist from the University of Chicago, is a regular speaker.
I suggested that they have John Mackey, co-CEO and co-Founder of Whole Foods Market, talk about his revolutionary stakeholder philosophy, “Conscious Capitalism.” John told me that Michael Milken did sponsor him at a private meeting in Los Angeles during his book tour, but he couldn’t make it to the Milken conference this year due to a conflict. Instead, they invited Walter Robb, his co-CEO, and I had a chance to have breakfast with him at the conference. He’s sharp and well rounded. He told me that he’s quite fascinated with FreedomFest (John Mackey is co-ambassador) and hopes to make it this year.
I also met with Gary Loveman, CEO of Caesars Entertainment, owners of Caesars Palace where we are holding FreedomFest this year. Like me, he is an applied Ph.D. economist, and quite libertarian from what he said at the conference. He hopes to welcome us to Caesars Palace on July 10 at our opening ceremonies.
Milken also brings in sports figures such as Magic Johnson, Joe Torre, Wayne Gretzky and Jimmy Connors. At the sports panel, moderator Jim Gray invited questions from the audience, and I was the first to respond with the following:
“To paraphrase Keynes, ‘Better that a man tyranize over his favorite sports team than his fellow man.’ Is sports a good substitute over war?”
The panel seemed to be stunned by the question. Jimmy Connors said, “I always thought it was war!” But Jim Gray dismissed the question, suggesting that my question was an affront to all the veterans.
I brought up the question because at this year’s FreedomFest we are going to address this issue in our session, “Who are the Modern-day Gladiators?” As you know, our theme this year (held appropriately at Caesars Palace) is “Are We Rome?” and I’d like to think that the competition of sports will be a good alternative to war, and will reduce tensions around the world.
Like most economic and financial conferences, there are experts who are bullish and bearish. John Rogers Sr. (Ariel Investments) was the most bullish; Abbey Cohen (Goldman Sachs) was “cautiously optimistic”; and Todd Morley (G2) said we were investing in “Zombie” markets due to the Federal Reserve’s easy-money policies. It appeared that most or all of the analysts at the show opposed the recent tepid austerity measures by government. Is no one an economizer anymore?
Milken’s background is in finance, and he seems to know all the players on Wall Street. I presented him with a copy of my “Maxims of Wall Street,” and asked him to give me a few of his favorite sayings. “I have a bunch of them,” he told me… Stay tuned for the third edition!
Tony Blair Gets It Right
I thought the highlight of this year’s event was Mr. Tony Blair (he says that the British do not refer to him as “Prime Minister” after leaving office). Not only is he naturally an amicable fellow, but he made a lot of sense in his remarks:
“I don’t think of left or right anymore, but open minded and closed minded.”
Amen. I am tired of the constant demonizing of people via political labels. We discourage this kind of divisiveness at FreedomFest. As one FreedomFest fan put it, “FreedomFest isn’t about left or right, but what’s left of our rights.” Or as Ronald Reagan said, “There’s no left or right, just up or down.”
Other noteworthy quotes made at this week’s conference by Mr. Blair:
“We must have a deficit reduction plan but we must be careful. We need a plan for growth and reform.”
“If a private business fails, it goes out of business. But in government, it keeps going.”
“Extremism in religion is a perversion of religion. He has formed a foundation to promote faith in the world.”
I was especially interested in a breakout panel on the X-Prizes, annual awards given out by Peter Diamandis to creative solutions to the world’s problems. His session was standing-room only. Some of the X-Prize competitions are going toward (a) new ways to go through airport security fast without undressing, (b) eliminating illiteracy by providing tablets (personal computers) to African kids who can’t read — experiments show they teach themselves to read in two weeks without teachers or schools! (c) new hand-held medical devices: cough into it and the device immediately diagnoses the illness.
The Rise and Fall of Civilizations
Our theme this year at FreedomFest is “Are We Rome?” (See our 2 ½ min video preview at http://vimeo.com/45821274.) We’re getting more than 100 views a day! So, I was quite interested in the panel on the “Rise and Fall of Civilization,” with Jared Diamond (author, “Guns, Germs and Steel”), Niall Ferguson (“Civilization”) and James Robinson (“Why Nations Fail”). Amazingly, Professor Diamond did not list “war” as one of the three major causes of collapse (his list included only disease and environmental disasters). Ferguson was the most pessimistic — he said that the United States may not decline, but it will more likely “collapse!” He’s more bullish on China, while predicting the unwinding of the European zone (the unemployment rate continues to rise sharply there).
And, now I offer a little light entertainment….
The conference always includes a night of entertainment, and for the past couple of years, that’s involved Lionel Richie and song writer David Foster (author of “Hit Man,” an entertaining autobiography). During the performance, Richie ended up sitting next to me — see photo below — I told him I was at the 1984 Olympics when he sang “Oh, What a Feeling!” and he said that performance was the highlight of his long career.
The evening had a special guest — song writer and performer Paul Anka. He was a major star when I was a teenager, and he is most famous for writing “My Way,” immortalized by Frank Sinatra and Elvis. Anka just wrote his memoirs of the same title. After his concert, I asked him to inscribe a copy to my wife, Jo Ann, with the sentence, “Going my way?” which he did. In his book, he talks about his close relationship with teen idol Annette Funicello and said that sadly he couldn’t attend her funeral because of a book and singing tour.
You Blew it! Harry Reid’s Blunder at Milken Conference
At this year’s Milken conference, Michael Milken moderated a panel with Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., the Senate Majority Leader, and Eric Cantor, R-VA, the House Majority Leader. Milken, as a non-partisan, does a good job of bringing together opposing views at his conference.
Harry Reid came out the loser this time, according to many people in the audience. He acted like there was no deficit disorder in the U.S. government, that the solution to every problem — whether it was health care, research and development, or the sluggish economy — was “more money.”
There was a funny moment when Milken showed a chart on the screen indicating that the United States led the world in obesity — roughly 67% of Americans are overweight. He turned to Sen. Reid and asked him what could be done. The audience seemed astonished when Sen. Reid said that too many poor people are still suffering from hunger in America, and that the solution was to make sure every poor American got three square meals a day. In other words, it wasn’t enough to have 47 million Americans on food stamps!
Not surprisingly, Senator Reid did not take any questions from the audience after the interview and was whisked away to another event.
To read my e-letter from last week, please click here. I also invite you to comment about my column in the space provided below.
o Sen. Rand Paul, who could be the next president of the United States, will be our keynote speaker at this year’s FreedomFest. Join us there July 10-13, 2013, at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas.
o Las Vegas Money Show, May 13-16: Join Jim Stack, Lou Navellier, former Fed official Robert McTeer, other experts and me at this big investment conference. Tickets are complimentary for my subscribers. To register, call 1-800/970-4355 and mention code # 031168.