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Milken Global Conference: Not Your Typical Conference

Friday, 27 Apr 2012 | 3:29 PM ET

I’m allergic to conferences. They tend to be dull affairs where the only people less interested in hearing the people speak onstage than the audience are the speakers themselves. My skin itches, my nerves jump. I find myself wandering around the hallways looking for someone willing to fight, drink, or gossip with me.

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The Milken Institute Global Conference is different. Instead of spending lunch feeling the edge of your knife and staring at the necks of the people across the table, you actually want to meet them and find out what they’re all about.

The array of people—from finance guys, to school teachers, to film producers, to specialists in aging well, to government officials (foreign and domestic)—is really extraordinary.

There are 559 speakers registered this year, with 417 speaking at the conference for the first time. Fifty-two different countries and 44 states are represented among the speakers.

The conference is hosted by the Milken Institute, the Santa Monica, Calif.-based free market think tank founded by former Wall Street financier Michael Milken. Two decades ago Milken had a controversial run-in with the government, ending with a guilty plea for securities law violations, a 22-month prison term, $600 million in fines and restitution, and a lifetime ban from the securities industry.

The Global Conference been running for 15 years now. I’ve attended the last two years as a panelist. (I note that I’m not on a panel this year, which I’m unwilling to accept as an indication of what they thought of my performance last year; instead, I think its an attempt to keep that “first time” speaker number very high.)

You can peruse this year’s program right here. Most of my time is spent in the finance panels because I write about finance for CNBC. The private equity panel is usually a favorite of mine, in part because it is typically very open-ended. The moderator asks questions, but the P.E. bigshots just talk about what’s on their minds. And they’re often unusually frank.

Last year, for example, the Carlyle Group's David Rubenstein explained that chronic under-funding of public pension plans was bound to contribute to the wealth of PE firms. The pension managers were going to have to seek out higher returns through alternative investments such as private equity because more traditional investments would continue to under-perform.

They were also all warning about a “bubble” in the internet. "There's clearly an Internet bubble," said David Bonderman, the founder of TPG Capital, who went on to take a jab at Groupon. It should be very interesting to hear what they’re going to say about the upcoming Facebook IPO.

Long ago, an earlier version of the Milken conference was dubbed the “Predator’s Ball.” These days the spirit tends to be less predatory than philanthropic, with a focus on bringing together “great minds” to address the “biggest global challenges.” But there’s typically an underlying sympathy for the business of finance that you won’t find, say, at an Occupy Wall Street rally.

The first year I attended, for example, a lot of people were expressing sympathy for Goldman Sachs , which had recently been sued by the Securities and Exchange Commission for its role in constructing mortgage derivatives that lost money for some investors.

When I’m not in one of the panels, I’m typically in the Tiki bar next to the pool at the Beverly Hills Hilton, where the conference takes place from April 29-May 2. I’ll do my best to keep readers fully updated on what people are saying when they are “off mic” and hoisting cocktails. Last year, three hedge fund traders told me what they thought markets would do in reaction to the killing of Osama Bin Laden.


Watch this space and NetNet.CNBC.com for more from the conference beginning Monday, April 30.

(By the way, if there are any panels you’d really like me to cover or attendees you want me to seek out for an interview, send an email to john.carney@nbcuni.com.)

Follow John Carney on Twitter: @carney

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