John Melloy | CNBC.com
For 25 years, legendary Wall Street strategist Byron Wien, now with The Blackstone Group, has held summer meetings with high net worth individuals to get their outlook on the global economy and investing. This year’s group, totaling fifty individuals and including more than 10 billionaires, was decidedly pessimistic on the U.S. economy, investment opportunities and the Obama administration.
“They saw the United States in a long-term slow growth environment with the near-term risk of recession quite real,” said Wien, in a commentary to Blackstone clients. “The Obama administration was viewed as hostile to business and that discouraged both hiring and investment. Companies and entrepreneurs were reluctant to add workers because they didn’t know what their healthcare costs or taxes were going to be.”
The strategist, whose “Ten Surprises” predictions for the New Year became required reading on Wall Street when he was at Morgan Stanley, declined to name the participants in this year’s two so-called benchmark lunches. However, the gatherings, which typically take place out on the eastern end of Long Island, have included in the past such investing legends as George Soros, Julian Roberson, and James Chanos, according to an account of one such lunch in 2007 by The Financial Times.
“The economic pessimism expressed by the wealthy is completely understandable,” said Jim Iuorio, a trader with TJM Institutional Services. “From the start of the campaign that led up to the ‘08 election, the wealthy have been depicted as villains by the Democratic party. Even though the political tide seems to be turning, real change is months or years away.”
Stocks are off their August lows this month and many traders, including Iuorio, attribute some of those gains to this changing political tide. Still, President Obama re-emphasized in a press conference today that extending the Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthy was not in his stimulus plans.
A massive reduction in the consumer debt load, a workforce without the right skills for the jobs of tomorrow, and too high labor costs relative to other countries “are not problems that are likely to be solved any time soon,” wrote Wien of the attitude of the people at the lunches, which took place in two groups on successive Fridays last month. “Only a few investors thought the Standard & Poor’s could reach 1200 next year.”
So what are the billionaires buying if this environment continues? Wien said “vacant office building,” “farmland” and “Africa” were some of the ideas thrown out. Not too many things for the regular investor.
“Billionaires have little in common with the retail investor in terms of investment options,” said Stephen Weiss of Short Hills Capital. “They don’t rely on mutual funds or stock/bond picking for return unless it is very concentrated. Their investments are generally more strategic and negotiated in businesses or other assets such as commercial real estate.”
To be sure, the folks at Wien’s lunches certainly have the most money at stake, but that hasn’t meant they were always correct. As The Financial Times chronicled in August 2007, only George Soros and one other big investor believed the economy was headed into a recession or a bear market. Now, we know those two men, not the consensus, were correct.
The scary part this time is that it seems from reading Wien’s commentary that there were not many dissenters.
“The lunches were over about three-fifteen,” wrote Wien to end the piece. “I didn’t get the feeling anyone there was rushing out to place an order before the close based on what was said.”