Salt rocks: A Las Vegas review

June 19, 2016 11:00 AM

The 2016 SALT Conference is in the books, and investors will look at the rest of the year to determine whether the prognostications of the hedge fund industry’s top experts will come true or not. No shortage of headline and punchy quotes accompanied the hedge fund sector’s “Spring Break” in Las Vegas. 

If by going on financial headlines alone, one might conclude that the event was a four-day pouting fest for moody hedge fund managers after a rough year, both financially and politically. But reports out of 2016 SALT failed to explain why this conference received the highest-ever rating of six stars by the American Academy of Hospitality Sciences. 

Following the event, a prominent media publisher, poolside at the Bellagio Hotel, said, “It’s very hard to describe the SALT conference to someone who has never attended.” That is perhaps the truest statement of the weekend.

Though the SkyBridge Alternatives event centers on the hedge fund industry, it truly is an agora — a market place of ideas. The event transcended Wall Street, presenting a message on the importance of entrepreneurialism, charity, personal fitness, hard work and saluting U.S. armed forces. For professional investors, this is the quintessential experience, an experience that everyone must attend at least once in their lifetime.

Here are the moments that slipped under the national media’s radar and made SALT such a memorable, and perhaps life-altering experience.

Charity in focus

For the last few months, politicians have railed against hedge fund managers over “greed” and “short-term capitalism.” But generosity and charity are core themes of the SALT Conference. 

Prominent schedule time during the Chairman’s Address each day was dedicated to the message of charity and the importance of using one’s time and resources to give back. The event helped raise money for a number of remarkable charities including Children of Fallen Patriots and the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation. Perhaps the SALT Conference’s defining moment wasn’t Kyle Bass’s prediction on China or T. Boone Pickens’ political comments, but the moment that a speaker — who had lost the use of his limbs and bodily functions from the chest down several years ago — stood up and demonstrated the radical advances produced by epidural stimulation in restoring autonomic functions.

SALT Founder Anthony Scaramucci and his partners also donated the game-jersey worn by former New York Mets catcher Mike Piazza during the first game played after the attacks on 9/11. In one of the most electrifying moments in baseball this century, Piazza hammered a dramatic home run that helped the Mets top the Braves in their first game back after the attacks. Scaramucci, Tony Lauto and an anonymous third business partner recently purchased the jersey for a record $365,000 and ensured that it will remain in the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown for baseball fans to enjoy.

Goolsbee hammers the gold standard

The gold standard has crept back into the public debate ahead of the 2016 election; actually a study on reinstating the Gold Standard was part of the GOP’s 2012 convention platform. One of the most thought-provoking moment came when Austan Goolsbee challenged the idea and explained the economic ramifications. 

“We gave [the gold standard] up because it didn’t work at all,” Goolsbee said “I’m sympathetic on the issue of debt, and academic work shows that as nations increase debt, it impacts their growth. The gold standard doesn’t solve that. You would much rather have Janet Yellen determining the price of the dollar than gold miners in Russia or Africa. If you were the Russians, and you wanted to start inflation, you would hoard gold and then release it on the market or mine for as much as possible. This opens up the U.S. government to a form of economic terrorism that we don’t want to face.”

Culture first

In a sit down with Scaramucci, Citadel Founder Ken Griffin discussed the secret behind his firm’s success over the years. No, it isn’t money, or political favors, or technology. It’s the firm’s culture. 

Griffin said that the best advice he received came from a mentor who told him to avoid marrying himself to a strategy. Instead, he focused on building “a platform that attracts the best people.”

In the wake of recent statements about a lack of talent in the hedge fund industry, Griffin implied that attracting good talent is a proactive process.

“Every new generation of managers has the same story about how hard it is to find talented people,” he said. “Good people have great sets of opportunities. You need to sell people on why they need to leave one firm and come work for you. The best talent is the talent that you go out and find. The talent that knocks on your door is not the best.”

Griffin highlighted Citadel’s success in recruiting from rivals and from firms that collapsed, but still were full of good talent such as Enron. At the time that Enron collapsed, the firm had a wealth of brilliant quantitative minds, but the firm lacked a strong culture. 

Putting in the work

Mark Cuban said anyone who thinks the American Dream is dead doesn’t know what they are talking about (he phrased it  more brashly). He attributed  his success  to his willingness to “put in the work.” He also explained that he is hyper-competitive and wants to be the best, a trait that seemed to course through the blood of many panel speakers who have experienced significant success in their lifetimes.

Griffin highlighted his own desire to be the top hedge fund with a simple question. 

“Who is the number five manufacturer of personal computers?” he asked, after a pause. “Who cares? We’re in more and more of a winner takes all world.”

That issue of self-determination was especially triumphant in the opening morning discussion between ESPN’s Mike Greenberg and former Chicago Bulls player Jay Williams. 

Williams has recently written a book about the aftermath of a motorcycle accident that derailed his NBA career when it was just getting started. Following the accident, his NBA comeback fizzled. He battled depression and addiction to painkillers, but changed his outlook on life from what could have been to where he plans on going. With the right team around him, he has found success in television, business, and as a motivational speaker. His “reinvention” has been a decade-long process, but one that has prepared him for a remarkable future of avenues he never once imagined possible.

That positive, forward-thinking mindset was firmly on display, as attendees boasted of the sheer motivation they felt after listening to a roster of successful thought leaders. If SALT doesn’t make someone want to go out and tackle a business idea, a dream, or any project that has sat on the shelf for years, it’s not clear what else possibly could.

About the Author

Garrett Baldwin is the Managing Editor of the Alpha Pages and the Features Editor of Modern Trader. An author and Baltimore native, he earned a BS in journalism from the Medill School at Northwestern University, an MA in Economic Policy (Security Studies) from The Johns Hopkins University, an MS in Agricultural Economics from Purdue University.