Acaravan of jet black Suburbans, Beemers and Benzes pull up to The Beverly Hilton. Valets open passenger doors. Tanned people in sharp suits and stylish dresses stride inside, past rows of TV cameras and stage lights and into the posh hotel’s ballroom. This isn’t the Golden Globe Awards, held here annually, but instead the event of the year for a different set of A-listers: the world’s financial elite.
For a few days in early May, billionaire Michael Milken has taken over the place for his Milken Institute Global Conference–a yearly gathering of CEOs, CFOs, COOs, managers, directors, managing directors, founders, cofounders, presidents, vice presidents and executive vice president-types who are all here to glad-hand, plot and partner with each other and rub elbows with celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow and Goldie Hawn and politicians like Congressman Peter Meijer (R – Michigan) and New York mayor Eric Adams (D) .
“It’s one of the few events where you still wear a tie,” says an exec at accounting giant EY, settling in for this year’s opening remarks, which he grumbles are already five minutes late.
One attendee tells me a theory that Wall Street titans flock here to pay tribute to Milken for taking the rap for the private equity industry’s sins three decades ago. Milken, whose junk bond empire helped fuel the go-go 1980s, pleaded guilty to securities fraud in 1990 and served two years in prison before remaking his image as a prominent philanthropist. The event’s roots trace back to Milken’s “Predator’s Ball” gatherings of corporate raiders and bond investors in the ’80s.
Whatever their motivation, billionaires–especially those in finance–still swarm the place. No fewer than 20 billionaire-led firms sponsored this year’s conference. Another 15 members of the Forbes list, worth a collective $100 billion by our count, spoke on its panels.
Hedge funder Ken Griffin (worth an estimated $26.2 billion) criticized Bitcoin, praised Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter and lashed Florida governor Ron DeSantis for his spat with Disney. “It’s important that the leaders in both parties stay above the fray when it comes to retaliation against corporate America,” the GOP megadonor warning. “We’re not building killer robots,” former Google CEO Eric Schmidt ($21 billion) promised during a session on artificial intelligence. Coinbase cofounder Brian Armstrong ($5.4 billion) predicted that a “substantial portion” of GDP will happen in the crypto economy in the coming decade or two. “It’s actually getting harder and harder to meet a true crypto skeptic in DC,” he noted. And Brazilian banker Andre Esteves ($5.7 billion) forecast that we have a “more inflationary world ahead of us.”
Perhaps the biggest draw: Former oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, once Russia’s richest person—worth some $15 billion before a falling out with Vladimir Putin saw him arrested, imprisoned and, eventually, self-exiled in London. Khodorkovsky told a packed ballroom that “the world will not be a safe place as long as Putin remains in power.” He then headed off to the lobby, to do an interview with CNBC.
Even with the markets dropping, the war in Ukraine raging and the pandemic lingering, more than 3,500 people registered tickets—which start at $25,000—to this year’s spectacle. Milken went virtual for 2020 and held a scaled down 2021 conference in October. The event was back in full force this year.
“There’s a magic in the air being here,” says Cate Ambrose, CEO of the Global Private Capital Association, a membership group for emerging markets investors, over a quick lunch at the packed lobby bar.
The good feelings extend beyond the conference. Despite everything going on in the world, the elites in attendance are largely optimism about the strength of the US economy, their companies’ futures and even rising prices, according to a survey of 175 of them that was conducted by The Harris Poll and presented to the crowd. Just 11% of the Milken set think inflation will keep climbing, compared to 43% of the American public. Even the well-off have their worries, though. Prominent among them, per the survey: shifting generational values.
That might help explain the daily yoga events, “wellness garden healing sessions” to enhance “peak performance” and panels with titles like “The Case for Inclusive Capitalism,” “The Power of LGBTQ+ Representation” and “Transcending Age-Based Divides.”
Still, many of the talks are focused on stuffy finance minutiae–a session with actor Don Cheadle is relegated to a smaller side room; A group of CEOs discussing “rapid digitalization” and “ESG goals” get the center stage main ballroom–or pragmatic discussions among investors like “Investment Opportunities for a Net Zero Economy,” “What to Watch Out for in India” and “Tools to Renew Social Cohesion.”
“We in Congress can learn a lot from the people here,” Representative Cheri Bustos (D – Illinois) tells me, after attending a panel about challenges facing the media industry. “It’s very solutions-oriented. Hardly anyone has even asked what party I’m from.”
The theme for this year’s gathering of the well-connected is, fittingly, “celebrating the power of connection.” The lesson isn’t lost on these conference goers, who seem to spend more time swapping business cards and setting up private meetings in the halls than sitting on the sessions. Everyone is networking–in the lobby, at the bar, by The Beverly Hilton’s iconic pool, where there’s a wait for any table not already reserved. “30 minutes,” the hostess says. “At least.”
There’s even more action happening off-site, at exclusive events and secretive parties at the estates of billionaires like Steve Cohen, the New York Mets owner who has a 12,000-square-foot spread nearby. Or at star hotels, like the five-star Peninsula Beverly Hills, where valets are working double-time parking Rolls Royces and Bentleys during a reception held by a prominent PR firm. Inside, guests from elite operations like Dyal Capital and Bridgewater Associates talk shop over cocktails and hors d’oeuvres while a man in a suit bangs away at an electric keyboard. Private equity billionaire Tom Lee wanders up to the bar for a refill. More than one attendee half-jokes that I’ve made it to a slice of the “real conference.”
Turns out there’s a lot of power in connections. In the hall, some attendees speculate about how many trillions of dollars of assets under management are represented at this year’s conference. No doubt countless key meetings are happening, deals are being proposed and agreements are being hammered out that impact big swaths of the financial markets.
“It’s a great way to have high-quality interactions with decision makers and business leaders,” says Matt Brown, the founder and CEO of investment platform CAIS. He connected with billionaire Todd Boehly’s Eldridge Industries at the Milken conference three years ago. Elridge ended up making a $50 million equity investment in CAIS, which connects alternative asset managers with financial advisors. Funding from the likes of Apollo, Motive Partners and Franklin Templeton has since followed, pushing CAIS’ valuation to $1.1 billion. “It’s been a great relationship,” says Brown, standing at a poolside table, surrounded by a sea of power lunches. “The rest has been history.”