The atmosphere of incongruity that pervaded this week’s annual Milken Institute Global Conference was practically palpable.
The gathering of billionaires, hedge fund managers and other financial industry professionals who converged on the Beverly Hilton hotel largely had a particular end in mind: how to increase their alpha, which, not to get too complicated, means improving their investment returns.
But while the 5,000 attendees could go to sessions on the state of capital markets, listen to the chairwoman of the International Monetary Fund and strike up conversations with some of the world’s most savvy investors, it all had to go down with a rather large dose of bitter medicine.
If the barricades have not been erected in the streets, they were told several times over, they could soon be unless there is reform of the American economic system.
“It’s not whether we should be capitalist or socialist. It’s how do we make sure that capitalism is working the way it has in the past,” said Alan Schwartz, a managing partner at global investment firm Guggenheim Partners, who warned of “class warfare.”
He noted that salaries and wages as a percentage of the economic pie are at a postwar low of 40%, prompting a “throw out the rich” mentality that would require some form of income redistribution to head off.
The dire warnings were reflected in the conference’s theme, Driving Shared Prosperity, and in a host of panel discussions that didn’t forget that members of the 1% were in the audience.
Consider Wednesday’s lunch session on the weighty topic “The Future of the Free-Enterprise System.” The panel was hosted by Institute founder and L.A. billionaire philanthropist Michael Milken, and featured discussion of the threat of climate change as well as the rising popularity of socialism among young people.
Milken told the audience that there is concern over the free enterprise system: “Obviously it is not working for everyone.”
Kerry Healey, president of Babson College — a suburban Boston school ranked high for its entrepreneurship education — talked up the “conscious capitalism” movement, which posits that businesses need a higher purpose beyond just making money.
“We are trying to change people’s feelings about capitalism,” she said.
Niall Ferguson, a senior fellow at the conservative Hoover Institution at Stanford University, said that when young people say they favor socialism what they really mean is simply a bigger role for government.
“There’s evidence they really don’t know what socialism is,” he said, pointing out how his students seem to admire European social democracies, which are nonetheless capitalist.
Preceding all that, though, was a plug for the Washington, D.C., outpost of “Ned’s Club,” an elite offshoot of the SoHo House chain opening next year. It will be in the same building complex where the Milken Institute is constructing its Center for the American Dream, a paean to capitalism.
The promotional video of the existing London location celebrated an opulent display of fine dining and merrymaking that was jarring amid all the talk of impending doom. But where better to prospect for members than at the conference?
This was the 22nd year that the institute has held the event, which featured more than 100 public panels on a plethora of topics consistent with the research interests of the institute, which seeks to find free market solutions to various challenges.
Panel topics on Wednesday alone, the last day of the conference, included discussions of blockchain technology, diabetes and obesity, harnessing the microbiome to treat disease, and artificial intelligence.
But it was telling that Milken hosted the conference’s last discussion, titled “Keeping the American Dream Alive” and featuring Ray Dalio, who built his Bridgewater Associates into one of the world’s largest hedge funds with some $150 billion under management.
Dalio made a reported $2 billion last year alone and has an estimated net worth that tops $18 billion, making him the country’s 25th richest person, according to Forbes.
He raised eyebrows last month with a post on LinkedIn that warned that unless the American economic system is reformed so “that the pie is both divided and grown well” the country is in danger of “great conflict and some form of revolution that will hurt most everyone and will shrink the pie.”
He returned to that theme in his talk, asserting that lack of income growth among the bottom 60% of the population had led to a loss of hope reflected in rising death rates linked to suicides and opiate abuse.
Dalio contrasted that with the New Frontier years of the Kennedy administration, when the nation thought it could eliminate poverty and set a goal to reach the moon. “I think that is the magic of the United States and we are losing that,” he said.
It was hard to say that any comprehensive concrete solutions emerged out of the discussion, though there was much talk about the need to improve educational opportunities in lower-income neighborhoods.
Milken had some additional thoughts, with political undertones, intentional or not.
Amid the fierce debate today over immigration, he concluded the conference with excerpts of Ronald Reagan’s last speech in the White House in 1989, which celebrated immigrants as fundamental to renewing the American Dream.
“If we ever close the door to new Americans, our leadership in the world will soon be lost,” Reagan said in the video, which ended to wide applause.