The Milken Conference Trades Rainbows for Clouds

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Even puppies aren’t able to lift the spirits of the Masters of the Universe.

There are a lot of reasons for tails to be wagging about the economy. The stock market is back in record territory. The unemployment rate continues to be low. The threat of rising interest rates appears to have abated. Consumers are still spending. The economy appears to be rebounding from a weak first quarter, and profits in the first three months of the year have not been as disappointing as expected.

And yet in the halls of the Beverly Hills Hilton, where top private equity executives are meeting for the annual Milken Institute Global Conference, few people are feeling sanguine about the economy and the prospects for investors. The conference traditionally draws Wall Street titans, CEOs, politicians and policy wonks for a Californian Davos. In addition to those attendees, puppies made an appearance this year as part of a wellness center meant to teach executives how to reduce stress. It didn’t seem to be working.

The Milken Conference Trades Rainbows for Clouds

Anne Walsh, the chief investment officer of fixed income at Guggenheim Partners, said that credit ratings appeared to be inflated and that investors who have flocked to leveraged loans and other high-yielding investments were not aware of the risks they were taking on. “There are a lot of people with negative views right now,” Walsh said on a panel with other credit investors, “and we are one of them.”

Among the top fears of attendees appeared to be the rise in corporate borrowing and the growth of investment products, mostly exchange-traded funds, that allow average investors to get in and out of debt markets that used to be hard to access but also appear to be increasingly volatile. Others said they saw potential breaking points in the U.S. and global economy. Seema Shah, senior global investment strategist at Principal Global Investors, said the economy and the market were being propped up by a weak dollar and low interest rates. A shift in either, Shah said, is not something the global economy can survive. “The global economy is not that strong, and the public markets are at all-time highs; that doesn’t make sense to me,” Shah said.

The Milken Conference Trades Rainbows for Clouds

The tone of Milken participants is a sharp contrast to a year ago, when the market was experiencing its biggest swoon since President Donald Trump had been elected. And yet one writer observed that if Michael Milken, the famous financier who runs the conference, had painted the walls of the Beverly Hilton with rainbows, no one would have thought it was out of the place. This year, the opposite is true. Markets are soaring again, but clouds would more closely capture the forecasts.

Josh Friedman, co-chief executive officer of Canyon Partners and a Milken regular, told attendees that his hedge fund was 20 percent less “long,” meaning betting prices would rise, than it was a year ago. “In today’s market, there’s not a lot that’s interesting,” he said.

There could be a number of reasons for the disconnect between the markets and the Milken mood. Nathan Sheets, chief economist of Prudential Financial’s fixed-income investment business, attributed it to “longevity bias.” With the economic cycle nearing the longest in history without a downturn, it’s normal to be nervous, even if the fundamentals appear solid. But it could also be that the Milken participants see something shifting that the rest of us do not yet. Indeed, private equity firms are exiting investments faster than they have in years. The days of rainbows and puppies could be coming to a close.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Stephen Gandel is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering banking and equity markets. He was previously a deputy digital editor for Fortune and an economics blogger at Time. He has also covered finance and the housing market.

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