The End of an Era?
The SALT Conference, long the premier gathering of the hedge fund industry, lost a little of its luster this year.
As he took the stage to deliver the opening remarks at last month’s glitzy SkyBridge Alternatives Conference in Las Vegas, Anthony Scaramucci seemed subdued.
That’s not an attitude typically associated with the voluble hedge fund impresario, who’s known as a consummate networker, industry cheerleader, and pitchman extraordinaire. Scaramucci, founder of the funds-of-hedge-funds firm SkyBridge Capital, has always served as ringmaster of the annual event, known as SALT.
But his heart didn’t seem to be in it this year. He had hoped to be ensconced in the White House by now, having been offered a position as special adviser to the president back in January. The offer prompted him to sell a majority stake in SkyBridge to a consortium led by Chinese conglomerate HNA Capital and RON Transatlantic, with the SALT Conference to be spun out as a separate business. But a few weeks later, the offer was rescinded and Scaramucci was out of a job and back on the SALT itinerary, to his admitted disappointment.
“I didn’t expect to be here,” he told attendees at the start of the conference, noting that things hadn’t worked out quite the way he’d planned but that he intended to bounce back professionally. It was a surprisingly personal address, and Scaramucci seemed to recognize the awkwardness. “You guys are a lot cheaper than my therapist,” he joked — the first of many self-deprecating cracks he made throughout the conference.
Scaramucci’s downbeat mood pervaded the gathering of approximately 1,800 hedge fund managers, investors, bankers, lawyers, and accountants, in stark contrast with earlier years, when SALT hummed with electricity. Even in a conference circuit known for high-end events at Ritz-Carltons and on tropical islands, SALT always stood out. It burst onto the scene — and into Las Vegas’s swank Bellagio hotel and casino — in 2009, within months of the nadir of the financial crisis. SALT launched at least partly as a gilded middle finger to politicians who trashed hedge funds after the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.
The conference embraced the hedge fund industry stereotype and cranked it up to 11: The most brilliant minds in finance, the most powerful people in politics, and the most in-demand celebrities convened for three days of exclusive dinners, high-stakes gambling (both financial and literal), nightclub after-parties, and high-octane political fundraising. Former presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush spoke there, and pop sensations like OneRepublic and Maroon 5 played private concerts for attendees. SALT was where the most exclusive managers came to mingle with the big money, politicians came to grovel before potentially election-changing donors, and all came to be entertained by some of Hollywood’s biggest stars. Both sponsors and attendees paid steep entry fees so as not to miss out on the action.
That may be changing.
At this year’s confab, held in mid-May, former vice president Joe Biden delivered a keynote address, as did ex–CIA director John Brennan, while DC strategists Karl Rove and Donna Brazile duked it out on a panel. Game-show host Steve Harvey regaled guests with showbiz yarns over lunch; ’80s hit machine Duran Duran played for an adoring middle-aged crowd; comedian and Saturday Night Live legend Dana Carvey performed during an afternoon session; singer Jewel delivered an inspiring motivational talk.
And of course, many of the usual hedge fund legends were on hand. Third Point founder Dan Loeb and Pershing Square Capital founder Bill Ackman delivered keynote addresses, while the infamous Steve Cohen (of SAC Capital Advisors and now Point72 Asset Management) was spotted at a private dinner and at the Bellagio craps tables. Former Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke prognosticated on markets in an early session. Guests dined on miso-glazed sea bass and grilled filet of beef while a SWAT team of stylists delivered salon-style blowouts to anyone who might need grooming after taking the free flywheel or extreme boot camp classes.
Despite all this, many of the players seemed to be going through the motions. One speaker almost literally phoned it in: DoubleLine Capital co-founder and bond king Jeff Gundlach, the lunchtime keynote speaker for the first day of the conference, had a last-minute conflict that prevented him from traveling to Las Vegas and was beamed into the Bellagio’s grand ballroom via hologram. Meeting rooms appeared more sparsely populated than in years past, while attendance at the traditional Wednesday night poolside cocktail party, which this year featured a performance by the Gipsy Kings, was noticeably lighter than usual.
The buzz of past events was gone, even as money managers speaking on various panels seemed more excited about profit opportunities than they’d been for the past few years. The weather couldn’t deliver either, with several days of cloudy skies, cool temperatures, and high winds forcing the Bellagio to close its pool area for a day.
That said, many of the panel discussions proved as thought-provoking and substantive as in previous years, and several attendees raved about the content and the overall experience. But those sentiments were not universal.
“It’s lame this year,” said one New York hedge fund manager, a veteran of several SALTs. Networking opportunities seemed thinner on the ground, he said, and the event lacked the energy of earlier iterations.
It’s hard to pinpoint any single reason. But 2016 was brutal for hedge funds, which posted yet another round of mediocre aggregate performance and suffered only their third-ever year of net redemptions. Some big-name institutions bailed on the sector entirely, while a handful of blue-chip hedge funds were forced to cut fees for the first time in their storied histories. SALT’s 2017 doldrums also could reflect the fact that maintaining the buzz of an A-list conference year after year is notoriously difficult, as any professional organizer will attest. What wows the crowds in the first few years becomes routine and expected.
Perhaps most obviously, it could be that Scaramucci was the glue that held the event together — and the person who wrote the big checks. Part of the reason SALT was able to attract such brand-name managers — of the caliber who rarely speak at public events — is because SkyBridge invested with several of them.
And there’s the hard-to-quantify fact that Scaramucci, despite all his detractors, knows how to throw a hell of a party. Behind the scenes, Scaramucci associates pointed out that while he may be bummed about not getting a powerful White House job, the boy from middle-class Long Island just made a nice bundle selling his firm at a time when active asset managers — and in particular funds of hedge funds — face severe headwinds. And the odds are good that Scaramucci, a master of reinvention, will find a successful third act.
Will that act include the SALT Conference? If Scaramucci recedes into the sunset, it will be hard to find another person with his outsize personality and unparalleled ability to bring political power brokers, movie stars, and Wall Street gurus to the (craps) table. Scaramucci will go on without SALT, at least for the most part — he retains a partial stake in the business and is said to be mulling starting a new investment venture. But whether SALT can survive without Scaramucci is an open question.