On Monday “former White House director of communications/financier” Anthony Scaramucci debuted as one of 12 houseguests on reality television show Big Brother: Celebrity Edition. Other cast members include washed-up comic Tom Green; Lindsay Lohan’s “momager,” Dina; and Kato Kaelin, who rented O.J. Simpson’s guest house and was a witness in the famous murder trial.
“For whatever reason, hanging out with Anthony Scaramucci, I say, ‘Hey, I can name all the presidents,’” Green recounts in a promotional clip. “Why the hell would I say that?” Scaramucci is Green’s competitor for the $250,000 first prize, after all.
But Scaramucci is also head of SkyBridge Capital, a fund of hedge funds overseeing about $9 billion, and ringmaster to the flashy SkyBridge Alternatives Conference, famously known as SALT.
SALT went on hiatus in 2018 during SkyBridge’s attempted sale to a Chinese firm (foiled by U.S. regulators) and Scaramucci’s 11-day foray in the White House (ended by profanity). Yet this May, at Las Vegas’s Bellagio Hotel, hedge funds and their service providers will once again pay upward of $5,000 per ticket to mingle with each other and potential clients — the latter, of course, being the people who actually control the spigot of money that the hedge fund industry depends on.
But SALT and Scaramucci seem to have a problem: Out of more than a dozen asset allocators who attended SALT in 2017 and were recently contacted by Institutional Investor, exactly zero said they plan to go this year.
None wanted to discuss either SALT or Scaramucci on the record.
“I am currently not aware of anyone attending from our group and would not have any comment on the topic,” wrote Robert Hulme, deputy investment director for Fort Worth’s public pension fund, in an email to II.
Two other former attendees said they won’t be at SALT 2019: Ministers and Missionaries Benefit Board Financial Services, which manages church employees’ retirement funds, and PAAMCO Prisma, a hedge fund seeder whose head of portfolio management spoke on a 2017 SALT panel.
Many said they weren’t sure or had yet to decide, including officials from the San Francisco Employees’ Retirement System, the Wyoming Retirement System, the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, and the Memorial Hermann Health System.
Several more responded to II’s query but did not come up with an answer as to their SALT plans, including Georgetown University’s endowment and the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan. Public relations representatives for the Qatar Investment Authority and Cambridge Associates — both of which sent speakers in 2017 — also provided non-response responses.
Only four out of 16 organizations failed to reply at all: China Investment Corp., the police pension funds for Chicago and West Palm Beach, and the University of Toronto.
All in all, the exercise uncovered only modest enthusiasm for SALT’s comeback, along with an aversion to institutions’ names appearing alongside Anthony Scaramucci’s. But Scaramucci’s politics and scandals don’t seem to have swayed allocators, according to conversations with chief investment officers and senior staffers on background. Whatever they thought of SALT before, that’s how they see it now. As SkyBridge’s president himself says, “Las Vegas doesn’t look great. If you work for a public pension fund, going to a hedge fund conference in Vegas, it’s not the greatest look.”
Other allocators who do come see value not in the celebrity, but in the efficiency. “Despite some of the negative press, SALT is a decent opportunity to meet with several current/prospective managers in an efficient manner,” says one. “That’s the main value-add for us. We don’t attend much of the actual conference sessions.” A foundation chief said he’d never gone to SALT or considered it because “Vegas is gross.” Scaramucci’s upcoming turn on Big Brother didn’t even register.
It is still months away from the May 7 start date. More institutions have signed up for the May event than had at the same point in 2017, SkyBridge president Brett Messing noted in a phone interview on January 18. The company took advantage of the hiatus to do some soul-searching about its flagship event. Based on that reflection, Messing noted, attendees this year can expect a slightly more professional vibe than in years past. For example, there will no longer be showgirls passing out poolside tequila shots, according to an insider.
So less of a boondoggle?
“I’m not embracing the word boondoggle — that was your word, not mine,” Messing said. “If you’d put SALT in Tulsa, Oklahoma, it wouldn’t have been as successful.” The revamp is about changing the mix of work and play, he explained: “More substantive content, a little less on the entertainment side, and facilitating connectivity. We all have bosses. When people come home from SALT, they can tell their bosses, ‘I met this person, connected with this manager, saw a panel related to this thing we’re working on.’”
As for his own boss, Messing takes the antics in stride. “Anthony gets a lot of publicity, and most of it has been very good for SkyBridge. Not all of it has been good for SkyBridge. In aggregate, it has benefited the firm.”
“When I take a vacation, I go to Hawaii,” Messing said. “When Anthony wants to take time off, he goes on television. It’s something that’s fun for him. We’ve gotten a handful of ‘We don’t think that was a good idea’ texts or emails from investors, but relative to our broader client base, we haven’t heard much. Let Anthony be Anthony.”