BEVERLY HILLS -- The vibe at this week's Milken Institute conference in Los Angeles was certainly more upbeat than a few months ago at the World Economic Forum in Davos.
The difference is that Davos is a global event and world prospects are not necessarily a great story, while the Milken confab is distinctly American and the facts are that the U.S. is back on top.
The California setting was appropriate. This is the mega-state, with an economy bigger than most countries, because it is the intersection between Hollywood and Silicon Valley. Both regions are where dreams and money collaborate to create innovation and massive wealth.
But other parts of the U.S. are starting to fire on all cylinders, with employment in March finally returning to pre-2008 levels. This will be accelerated by huge foreign capital inflows, a booming energy business and the repatriation of manufacturing. Naturally, stock markets and real estate prices are reflecting this renewed and anticipated American Mojo.
"The U.S. is the best place to invest in today," declared the head of one of the world's biggest foreign pension funds to a group of us in a private session.
Equities domiciled in the U.S. are really valuable, because they are legally protected, and the real estate market has turned, thanks in part to foreign capital. This is a virtuous trend. Another money manager pointed out there are also fewer market offerings and the number of publicly listed companies in the U.S. has declined from 15,000 to 9,000 in 15 years. This means quality is going to do well.
Atop it all, the overall monetary environment is favorable. Consensus is that the new head of the Federal Reserve, Janet Yellen, will keep interest rates down for at least two more years or until full employment returns.
Globally, the story is less rosy and total GDP growth is expected to average 3% for three years. The EU will contribute only 1% to growth figures, but, it should be noted, last year Europe's stock market multiples doubled back to pre-crisis levels. While tepid, that's an improvement but a caveat is Russia's destabilizing and isolating tactics in Ukraine. The neighbours are worried, but not enough to impose serious sanctions or trade boycotts. Because this is a regional problem, the market risk is minimal given Russia's relatively small financial footprint.
"It's considered to be a gas station posing as a country," said a cyber security expert in one session.
The third engine of growth, China, will slow to 7% GDP growth, but this is a "policy not a cyclical slowdown." The technocrats who run the country are purposely cooling off their economy to fix their bank and local government enterprise debt situations. This is also designed to create a consumer economy, a shift away from its infrastructure spree economy. While sensible for China, this has negative ramifications for commodity exporters.
Canada mostly exports oil, where prices will remain high, but many felt the commodity super-cycle has run out of steam, except for agriculture. This is related to China's shift because 70% of commodity prices are dependent on its growth rates.
America is also benefitting from the fact that the Chinese are disinvesting and putting huge sums, or hiding ill gotten gains abroad due to the corruption crackdown at home. Toronto and Vancouver have seen housing prices jump due to this and now the coastal areas of California, New York and Miami are experiencing similar spikes in high-end residential and commercial real estate.
Chinese companies are also disinvesting which is why, for the first time, the amount of Foreign Direct Investment by China in the U.S. outpaced American investment in China in this year's first quarter. The country is diversifying and investing in real assets such as established food, tourism, luxury goods and entertainment companies.
America's real economy is also mending and on the move. Political pushback against offshoring has led Wal-Mart and others to domesticate their supply chains. Costs are lower due to automation and cheap energy and the first bicycle factory in decades is opening soon in North Carolina with competitively priced products, said a Wal-Mart spokesman.
In technology, the U.S. will continue to dominate which means dominance in advanced manufacturing. This is driven by the fact that 70% of all software globally is developed in the United States.
The three-day conference held 150 panels, sprinkled with celebrities and discussions about philanthropy. Hollywood heavyweights like Sean Penn and Matt Damon spoke about their good works as did market heavyweights Steve Schwartzman of the Blackstone Group and Ken Griffin of Citadel LLC who have collectively given more than $600 million to schools and scholarships.
Regionally, the conference also hosted one of the most interesting panels about its local sector, Hollywood, where prospects are also exceedingly bright. Even though the movie-going market has matured in the U.S., the international one hasn't nor has movie viewing on a range of devices or "windows" such as iPads or cellphones.
"The back end is more important than the front end now," said Les Moonves, CEO of CBS Tiffany Network. This means foreign after-market sales, video on demand sales, Netflix, merchandising and re-runs.
"The film business is going to be a tremendous growth business," agreed Jeff Shell, CEO of Universal Filmed Entertainment Group. "Seventy percent of revenues are international and is growing like crazy with China and Latin America just starting to take off. The switch from film to digital means content can be watched on all platforms."
And the U.S. owns this space with an infrastructure in Los Angeles that ranges from talent recruitment to financing, post-production facilities and gigantic sound studios that dot the landscape. In China, the top-rated program is "House of Cards", produced by Netflix, followed by "Big Bang". Disney just signed a $4.4-billion deal last week to build Disneyland in Shanghai with other deals in the offing and "Frozen" has swept the world.
It was refreshing to hear all this promising news, even if a bit hyperbolic sometimes. And there were dampeners such as a panel on cyber attacks against corporations and governments, hacking and the need for better education in most countries. But the fact that there is still no business like show business, and no economy like America's, is certainly music to my ears and for the rest of us, money in the bank.
This article appeared first in the National Post
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