I was hoping for Margin Call meets Spring Breakers: 1,800 rich Wall Street dudes winging westward for four Krug-soaked days in the famously debauched mecca of misbehavior, Las Vegas, to talk shop of course. You imagine an orgy of black cards, mountains of powdery substances, late night poker games with hundreds of thousands on the table, ladies of questionable employment in very short dresses, steaks so finely aged and bloody you don’t know whether to eat them or call an ambulance.
Frankly, the idea of attending SALT Las Vegas 2014, the biggest hedge fund conference of the year, scared me a bit, especially as I figured I’d be one of the few women in attendance. But I’m used to it. I’m a New Yorker, and I’m good at being one. I’ve found the after parties, and the after after-parties, and seen bankers sweat through an $8,000 suit dancing until dawn. I was partying on West 27th Street when Lindsey Lohan could still get acting gigs, convincing Kenny Kenny to let me into the club. I’m not exactly a Disney princess. So there are things I know—like that I hate EDM as much as I hate trying to calculate a company’s EBITDA (it’s hard work, people).
But as a reporter, I figured SALT 2014 would be the perfect environment in which to really understand the culture of Wall Street, the heady mix of money and machismo that, for better or worse, drives a good bit of the economy. I packed some 5-Hour Energy drinks, sunscreen, heels, and two books: a copy of Hunter S. Thompson’s collected works and a paperback of Connie Bruck’s classic junk bond chronicle, The Predators’ Ball. Then I hopped an 11:00 a.m. JFK-to-LAS direct flight, prepared for bedlam.
Four days and at least three exquisite cuts of beef later, I emerged slightly dazed, exhausted and extremely worried about the state of our economy. This couldn’t possibly be the way the Masters of the Universe really demonstrated their mastery….
I arrive at the Bellagio, drop my stuff off and make a beeline for the pool. Instead of loud Swedish House Mafia and neon bikinis, it’s Train and artisan dad jeans.
There’s a guy in the pool with a bluetooth attached to his ear, listening to a conference call on mute. He’s got his phone in a plastic bag. Very prudent.
Later, I head to the opening cocktail reception, where I find myself in conversation with a pair of accountants who are sponsoring the event. They’re dressed like lost members of the Rat Pack. One wants to know if I like Cubans. He said it as if he was introducing me to the secret good stuff—the best, illicit this-is-our-secret stuff.
I reply that I don’t smoke cigars. They look at me like I just insulted their mothers.
Later, at dinner, I overhear a pair of bankers recount the wild story of a business trip they went on not long ago. It seems one guy had run out of cash for late-night pizza at a cash-only spot. The other guy handed him (get this) a $100 bill. Rock on, fellas.
Later that night, I arrive at Hyde, the club inside the Bellagio, to find guys dancing on tables. I say guys and I mean guys. It’s locals night, so there are a few girls around, but this is a male-dominated conference. So the suits from SALT are fist-pumping to whatever song the DJ plays—generally for 2 minutes before switching to the next one—in tight, happy bro-clusters.
I’ll give them a solid B for effort, but the fact that they still have their name tags on puts a damper on the proceedings.
Now, perhaps I’m jaded—perhaps because I’ve seen too much. But a banker dancing on a table surrounded by bottles of vodka and champagne doesn’t impress me the way it used to. If you’ve clubbed in New York City and haven’t seen that, then you’ve clubbed with a blindfold on.
Indeed, if you haven’t witnessed a banker stumble from a club at 4:30 clutching a $10,000 receipt then you obviously keep school-teacher hours. I’ve seen all that.
Remember the off-the-hook bacchanalia of The Wolf Of Wall Street? Now forget it. So far, the only drug I’ve been offered is Adderall—the stuff that helps college kids cram for exams. The stuff they give little kids who can’t sit still.
Everyone goes to all the lectures, which admittedly are top notch. David Tepper, the highest paid hedge fund manager of 2013, pulling in $3.5 billion, gives a killer talk on the market in which he warns everyone listening to keep some cash on hand. “It’s nervous time,” he says. Then Kevin Spacey takes the stage, and proceeds to imitate Skybridge Capital CEO (and our host) Anthony Scaramucci’s Long Island accent. “1 percent, is that what you call yourselves, or your returns?” Spacey asks.
During a break, I stop by a cabana party down at the pool, where everyone politely picks at sliders and talks about brokerage firms. A hedge fund manager tells me his favorite Vegas perk—a friend at his hotel who disconnects the minibar censor for him.
“I get my fill of Beefeater gin and Pringles, and then go for the M&Ms and vodka,” he confides. Super luxurious.
After dinner everyone heads to the club, the Encore at the Wynn Hotel.
It’s been more than 24 hours and I have yet to see one prostitute. People leave early. I do too.
Later, I try to get away from the noise and dig into the Bruck book. The title, The Predators’ Ball, is what insiders called the The Drexel High Yield Bond Conference. It was thrown by Wall Street legend Michael Milken and his storied firm Drexel Burnham Lambert during their glory days in the 1980s.
Held at the Beverly Hills Hotel, it sounds like a hell of a party. Money men came from far and wide to kiss Milken’s ring. He was the father of the junk bond, friend to the 1980s gods of finance—the corporate raiders. He ensured that their deals got done, meaning that Milken was not only a king, he was a king maker.
Of course, you can also read his story in the records of a federal grand jury—he pleaded guilty to six counts of securities fraud in 1990. The real action happened at the conference itself, during which the serious deal-makers were treated to a private dinner at the then-so-glamourous Chasen’s on night two. There, invitees were joined by a cadre of gorgeous working women, recruited by a Drexel guy named Don Engel who once remarked, “How could I get these guys to come if I didn’t have the girls?”
At the final night of the conference there was a dinner and a show. One year the performers were Frank Sinatra and Diana Ross. The latter performed for free in exchange for a piece of one of Milken’s investments.
Finally some insanity—a bunch of young people are having a Champagne brunch party by the pool, and it’s all Champagne and no brunch. They’re squirting the stuff in each other’s mouths, dancing to that same bad 9os alternative music (Better Than Ezra, really?!) and having a good time.
I’d like to stay but I have a lecture to go to. Nassim Taleb is about to face off against Larry Summers.
I later discover that most of the people “brunching” are not officially attending the conference. They come from a big Wall Street bank—can’t say which—and they’re in town to help entertain clients. Only one poor sucker is actually going to the conference.
That said, client relations is serious business. The bank has given these people a firm expense limit of something like $8,000 per night—and that’s not a ceiling, it’s a floor. When they don’t spend it, it’s $1,200 bottles of Dom all around.
That night everyone goes to see Lenny Kravitz give a killer private performance for over an hour. It’s not quite Sinatra-level, but it’s a great show. I heard that a prostitute approached my friend while he was standing around alone, but he politely declined.
A lot of people have gone, but those that are still around are playing rapt attention to a China talk headlined by famed short-seller Jim Chanos.
The closing pool party is more backyard Connecticut BBQ Las Vegas blowout. There’s not a spot of neon to be seen.
I’m out of business cards.
On the plane home, I find myself absorbed in Bruck’s book. Milken himself famously never touched any kind of drug, not even caffeine. But the same could not be said for those who attended the Predators’ Ball. Let’s just say that.
These days Milken presides over a decidedly less wild affair, the Milken Institute’s Global Conference. It brings together businessmen, world leaders, and scholars. It’s lovely. People go to bed early.
It almost makes you wonder if the public shaming that accompanied the crash of 2008 really did have an impact—one that anyone outside the world of Wall Street might not feel or see. Perhaps the notion that this gravy train can come to a sudden stop at any time has scared the Street into behaving better, at least for a little while.
While the conference was underway, The Financial Times published an internal video that made the rounds at Deutsche Bank in April. In it, Colin Fan, the co-head of the investment banking division, admonishes his colleagues about their online behavior.
“Some of you are falling way short of our established standards,” he says. “Let’s be clear: being boastful, indiscreet and vulgar is not OK, and will have serious consequences for your career—and I have lost patience on this issue.”
That kind of message spreads fast. Bankers aren’t supposed to be bragging to each other as much about sucker clients and big kills. They aren’t supposed to be dancing in the end zone. Not anymore.
As for SALT, perhaps it’s no surprise those in attendance were so well-mannered. The conspicuous consumption of the 1 percent is being panned left and right. After Barry Rosenstein, head of hedge fund JANA Partners recently acquired a Hamptons mansion for $147 million—the most expensive home purchase in United States history—his representative was irritated by the media pile-on that the flack told the New York Post, “I am getting sick of you.”
The SALT conference might not be the stuff of a Scorsese movie or a Connie Bruck blockbuster, but it still reflects the spirit of the times. The SEC is paying attention. Make a spectacle of yourself and you might be wearing an orange jumpsuit—or at least putting your signature on a very big check. Look what happened to Milken, after all.
Which is why, the minute I stepped off the plane in New York, I started texting my friends about their evening plans. Time to go to a real party.
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