Davos in the Desert: 10 Years of SALT
Over the past decade, the four-day Las Vegas conference called SALT came to represent the confluence of finance’s sharpest minds and Washington’s most powerful people sprinkled with some of Hollywood’s top talent—a mashup that became known as Davos in the Desert. Hedge funds came to solicit money from investors, and politicians came looking for donors—while casino gambling, poolside cocktails and power dinners made it fun. Add a rock concert (Maroon 5, Lenny Kravitz and Duran Duran have all played), and SALT became the power party of the year. Following are some highlights.
Wall Street firms, kept alive by the U.S. government after the market crash of 2008, had canceled their Vegas conferences and SkyBridge itself was on the verge of going bankrupt when Scaramucci had an idea: Hold a conference anyway. SALT debuted on May 13 at Steve Wynn’s Encore hotel, with financier Michael Milken and general Wesley Clark as the keynote speakers. About 460 people attended.
SALT moved to the Bellagio and nabbed former president Bill Clinton (pictured above) as a keynote speaker. The conference brought in other political leaders, including Mitt Romney, setting a bipartisan tone that would characterize the event going forward and elevate SALT’s reputation as the place where policymakers and financiers meet. That year hedge fund moguls who rarely spoke publicly—such as Ken Griffin of Citadel and Izzy Englander of Millennium—offered their “view from the top.” The markets were coming back, the buzz was beginning and attendance was capped at 1,500.
Scaramucci launched what would become the most highly anticipated feature of SALT: an off-the-record one-on-one interview with secretive hedge fund legends, starting with Steve Cohen, whose SAC Capital was widely viewed as one of the most successful in the world (but which would only two years later be shut down by the feds after pleading guilty to insider trading). The Bellagio auditorium was packed with some 1,800 attendees there to see the man who managed over $15 billion at SAC’s peak and achieved a 30 percent average annual return for 18 years. Former president George W. Bush, former UK prime minister Gordon Brown and former U.S. secretary of state Colin Powell provided the political firepower.
Politics took center stage during the presidential election year, when Scaramucci had become a co-finance chair of Mitt Romney’s campaign. But the big hedge fund names continued to be the draw. Scaramucci’s coup was an interview with another secretive hedge fund icon, Paul Singer of Elliott Management, who emerged that year as one of the most influential backers of Romney’s unsuccessful bid for the presidency. Meanwhile, former vice president Al Gore drew applause at the event by decrying big money’s corrosive influence in politics.
The success of SALT played off Scaramucci’s natural talents as an entertainer (he had a cameo in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps), and the impresario inserted Hollywood into SALT—starting with an interview with fellow Italian American Al Pacino and closing the event with an interview with Stone. Scaramucci also did a one-on-one with hedge fund legend John Paulson, who talked about his famous subprime short, which made him $4 billion in 2007. France’s former president Nicolas Sarkozy made an appearance. With the markets soaring, attendance peaked at 2,000.
Scaramucci continued the same playbook: He interviewed hedge fund legend David Tepper of Appaloosa Management, who caused stocks to fall by saying at SALT that “the market is dangerous right now,” while Kevin Spacey, then the star of the Netflix hit House of Cards, provided Tinseltown glamour. To cap the event, Scaramucci announced he was taking his Vegas show to TV, having bought the rights to Wall Street Week, the iconic PBS show formerly hosted by Louis Rukeyser.
The Mooch’s interview with Third Point founder Dan Loeb, a regular on the SALT circuit, created a stir when the hedge fund manager went after Warren Buffett, insinuating he was a hypocrite for his negative views on hedge funds and support for taxes on the wealthy. SALT continued what was an annual nod to the military and national security, with appearances by former secretary of defense Chuck Hagel and former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice.
SALT became the unofficial campaign finance headquarters for Donald Trump, with former hedge fund manager Steve Mnuchin, who was Trump’s finance chair, buttonholing people as he walked the halls of the Bellagio, which was filled with hedge fund Republicans like T. Boone Pickens, Leon Cooperman and Ken Griffin. A highlight of the conference was an appearance by former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, a favorite among hedge fund managers, many of whom were disappointed he did not run for president.
The future of SALT was uncertain after Trump’s win. Scaramucci, expecting to go to the White House, was selling his stake in SkyBridge, but he ended up as the event’s emcee when the deal hadn’t closed by May, when SALT is held. Former vice president Joe Biden and ex-CIA director (and now Trump nemesis) John Brennan both gave keynotes. Scaramucci interviewed Pershing Square CEO Bill Ackman, while Steve Cohen—who was relaunching his hedge fund as Point72 Asset Management—was seen at the craps tables. Many thought it was SALT’s last hurrah. The event was canceled the following year, as the sale of SkyBridge still had not gone through.
After Scaramucci was fired from the White House, and the sale of SkyBridge was finally nixed, Scaramucci committed to bringing back SALT. His big “get” this year is retired general John Kelly, whose first job as Trump’s chief of staff was to let Scaramucci go. The two have since made up. “I don’t hold grudges, and he’s somebody that I respect,” says Scaramucci. Other politicos in the lineup include Nikki Haley, the former UN ambassador, and Susan Rice, national security advisor to Obama. Hedge fund honchos are in shorter supply—in part because last year was the worst for the industry since the crash as two-thirds of hedge funds lost money. Scaramucci says he’s branching into other areas of finance like venture capital, and trying to focus SALT less on hedge funds and more on investment themes. Other big names this year include Mark Cuban and Steve Case, and there are panels on hot new areas such as crypto and cannabis.
Michelle Celarier is a freelance journalist specializing in business and finance whose work has appeared in Worth, New York, Institutional Investor, Slate, the New York Post and Fortune, among others.