Tech and media moguls gathered here for an annual confab this week sounded a mostly cautious note on the economy.
Big debts and still-depressed housing prices will continue to weigh on consumers, said Greg Maffei, CEO of Liberty Media Corp., whose entertainment businesses include the Starz pay-TV channel and QVC shopping network.
“Most people here have consumer-facing businesses,” he said. “It’s not to say that the world is going to fall apart, but it’s going to be a long, hard slog.”
The bucolic resort in Sun Valley, with sunbathed mountains and opportunities for whitewater rafting, is host each July to a throng of CEOs, investors and entrepreneurs from the worlds of technology and media. While net worth among the gathered billionaires is almost certainly up from last year, the same economic jitters that have sent the stock market into a foul mood lately were on full display.
Liberty’s chairman, John Malone, also worried out loud about the pace of economic growth, as did media banker Gordon Crawford.
That said, poor economic conditions haven’t necessarily stopped participants from plotting industry-changing moves.
In past years, the ground work for some major deals has been laid here, including the pending takeover of NBC Universal by cable TV provider Comcast Corp.
As always, mogul citings this year were bound to draw speculation about what might be brewing:
• There was Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg driving off with Eric Schmidt, chief of fellow Internet powerhouse Google Inc.
• There was Miramax co-founder Harvey Weinstein chatting with Bob Iger, CEO of the Walt Disney Co., which has been trying to sell the company that Weinstein and his brother Bob sold to Disney in 1993.
Grandees from outside the media business also show up. Berkshire Hathaway Chairman Warren Buffett was there, as was New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
The conference is not known for producing big news. Its host, the boutique investment bank Allen & Co., is known for secrecy and keeps reporters mostly roped off on the sidelines. This year prompted some grumbling among the attending journalists, who were shooed from one designated area to the next and very pointedly kept out of the lodge bar.
Still, some moguls did stop to speak with the press, and they were mostly cautious on the economy.
Even Google, whose online search ad business has reaccelerated since the doldrums of the recession, confirmed the sense of economic malaise.
“The U.S. government withdrew its stimulus spending in March and June and as a result a set of indicators – retail, housing and so forth – fell off a little bit,” Schmidt said. “We don’t have any data that disagrees with that.”
There were few enthusiastic words for the White House, which has riled the business world with changes in health care and financial regulations.
Philippe Dauman, CEO of Viacom Inc., which includes MTV and the Paramount film studio, made a not-so-subtle dig at the Democratic Party, predicting more certainty for businesses after this year’s midterm congressional elections. He hinted at a Republican-controlled Congress, which would be less likely to play ball with the Obama administration on new regulations.
“The focus now ought to be on economic growth,” Dauman said. “For companies to invest they need at least a modicum of certainty.”