There are few events in life — appendectomies, perhaps — as unnecessarily painful as the typical asset management panel discussion. I have, by rough count, sat through about 400 panels in the past eight years; I personally hosted perhaps 150 of them. A generous estimate of those that were not mind-numbingly boring is 75 — which, by dint of math, means I’ve been partly to blame.
Moderator, we have a problem.
Yes, some panels bring listeners to the edge of their seats and make news. JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon calling Bitcoin a fraud that will get someone killed, as he did at Delivering Alpha this year? Not painful; awesome. Michael Milken hosting an intimate chat with his friends in front of an audience of 1,000? Odd but enlivening. Anything at SALT featuring Anthony Scaramucci? An inch deep, perhaps — but certainly entertaining. Alas, for every one such panel, we endure ten hourlong monologues on the benefits of smart beta in a low-interest-rate environment.
A truly skilled investor, it is said, can build a terrible portfolio as well as a stellar one. Can a conference organizer do the same? Or are those rare Dimon-in-the-rough moments simply random luck, the dart-throwing monkey hitting “APPL” in 1984?
I reached out to a core group of frequent conference attendees with this perverse task: Help design the world’s most horrendous investment conference agenda. Over Twitter asset allocators from Wake Forest University, the American Red Cross, and the Dallas Children’s Health investment office weighed in.What follows is our best worst nightmare of hell in a conference room.
The World’s Worst Investment Conference
Wednesday, November 22, 2017
Beige Corporate Hotel in a City Two Spirit Airlines Layovers from Your Home
6:45 a.m.: Continental breakfast, featuring cold, runny eggs and abrasive bacon. Also: awkward conversation with an asset manager you fired six months ago. Coffee carafe has run dry.
7:30–7:45 a.m.: Generic introductory remarks. Must include unconvincing proclamation that the industry is at a “crossroads” or a “fork in the road” or a “fork in the crossroads.” Must include housekeeping notes stating obvious facts such as bathroom location and lunch start time. All of this is printed clearly on the agendas in front of the groggy attendees. Please note: There is no cell phone service in the basement venue, and Wi-Fi costs $29.95.
7:45–9:15 a.m.: Ninety minutes of Predictions About What President Donald Trump Will Do. Panelists must have a proven track record of incorrectly making such predictions at last year’s event, but about Hillary Clinton.
9:15–10:00 a.m.: Overt sales pitches by Managers Paying per Minute to Speak. “Have you heard? Private credit is very hot right now! And we just so happen to have a ton of private credit products. As you can see in the lefthand chart . . .”
10:00–10:15 a.m.: Coffee break.
10:07 a.m.: Coffee carafe runs out.
10:15–11:30 a.m.: Managing a Portfolio in a Low-Return Environment. Please avoid discussing the provable fact that the managers onstage have been predicting low returns — through one of the great bull markets in history — since 2012.
11:30 a.m.–1:00 p.m.: A Random Series of Extremely Specific Thoughts on Emerging Markets. Ninety minutes required to get through 108 slides. Audiovisual equipment will break midway through, prompting panel to run over by ten minutes. “I’ll just speed through the regional election in Laos . . . and finish with a deep dive into how agrarian reforms have been impacting Guyanese peanut production.”
1:00–2:30 p.m.: Diversity in Asset Management. Presenters include middle-aged white man No. 1, middle-aged white man No. 2, and a millennial woman of color who has realized that this conference’s commitment to diversity runs about as deep as most hedge funds’: ticking a box. Influential people leave the room to check email.
2:09 p.m.: Listless audience has no questions. “No one? Well, let’s thank our panelists — John, John, Laura . . .”
2:13 p.m.: Two of three panelists bolt for the bar, still wearing their wireless mics. (John No. 2 has a call with his trustees, and a flask.)
2:30–3:00 p.m.: Mercifully long coffee break inevitably interrupted by asset management marketer who somehow is still smiling.
3:00–4:15 p.m.: Presentation — Active vs. Passive: A Fork in the Crossroads. As passive managers generally don’t have enough institutional marketing dollars to pay to speak at events, the presentation will, by definition, ignore all evidence favoring passive investing.
3:55 p.m.: Audience has thinned to a 3:1 chair-to-person ratio.
4:15–5:30 p.m.: Fireside Chat: Please God Make This End. It doesn’t, instead running 18 minutes over.
5:48 p.m.: Cash bar.
Kip McDaniel is the chief content officer and editorial director of Institutional Investor. His responsibilities include agenda creation for the Institutional Investor Institute and the Alternative Investor Institute.