The only thing in common among the celebrity panelists at Tuesday's Delivering Alpha conference in New York seemed to be a shared reticence to comment on Donald Trump's presidential campaign (with the exception of vehement Trump backer Carl Icahn).
Starwood Capital CEO Barry Sternlicht may have summarized the political mood best in a panel on the U.S. economy: "I was hoping everyone would get indicted and we'd get to start over."
The majority of the event, hosted by CNBC and Institutional Investor, consisted of the guests butting heads over the intrinsic value of specific stocks, incongruous views on the health of the U.S. economy, and general ambivalence on whether the Federal Reserve should begin to hike rates.
For instance, Alibaba (BABA) Executive Chairman Joseph Tsai effectively asked for previous guest Jim Chanos, president of short-selling fund Kynikos, back onto the stage after Chanos characterized the Chinese e-commerce giant as an unwieldy behemoth with a poor track record of disclosing its earnings and financial health.
"Is Jim Chanos still here?" asks Baba's Joe Tsai when taking the stage at #DeliveringAlpha, sounding as if he wanted to debate him right now.— Scott Wapner (@ScottWapnerCNBC) September 13, 2016
"I would like to invite Jim Chanos to come to Hangzhou and see our campus, see our business, so we can really explain our business to him," Tsai told Real Money's Jim Cramer in an afternoon "Best Ideas" panel. Tsai added that Alibaba shares have climbed roughly 50% since Chanos began "talking down" the stock last year, adding derisively, "You got to pay a lot of respect to him."
Gloom palpable #DeliveringAlpha Urgent need for laughter! Or at least not palpable negativity. Maybe our Best Ideas panel?— Jim Cramer (@jimcramer) September 13, 2016
Debt-laden drugmaker Valeant (VRX) was another stock over which the investment gurus appeared incapable of finding common ground.
Bill Miller, chief investment officer of fund manager LMM, defended his bull stance on Valeant against Chanos' more dismal view that Valeant may still have trouble ahead, despite shares falling about 88% over the past 12 months.
Miller argued "the past is not prologue for Valeant," and that investors can expect the Canadian drugmaker to begin churning out steady free cash with new management at the helm and as strategic asset sales will help rebrand Valeant as a more specialty pharmaceutical company -- and not a bloated drug giant that's grown precariously fast through years of debt-fueled acquisitions.
Valeant shares tumbled after Securities and Exchange Commission and congressional probes unearthed bookkeeping improprieties tied to Valeant's former partnership with mail-order pharmacy Philidor. The shares have also been buffeted by SEC filing delays and allegations of exorbitant price hikes on several acquired drugs, for which ousted CEO Michael Pearson apologized to a Senate panel in April.
The panelists also appeared split on whether the Federal Reserve will hike interest rates from the near-zero levels where they've been since the financial crisis.
Bridgewater Associates founder and co-chief investment officer Ray Dalio said raising rates could be a "risky" move that could destabilize asset prices. (Westport, Conn.-based Bridgewater is the world's largest hedge fund in terms of assets under management.)
"In my humble opinion, I think that the Fed is putting too much emphasis on the business cycle and not enough on the long-term debt cycle," he said.
Meanwhile, Steve Schwarzman, CEO of PE giant Blackstone (BX) , argued that rate hikes are imminent and really won't play as major a role in affecting financial markets as many pundits are saying.
"You know, people have been talking about this on television for so many years that the Fed might actually do something," he said. "You're daring them. Eventually they will give up and do something ... but it won't make a difference to the U.S. economy."
Billionaire activist Carl Icahn was Delivering Alpha's final keynote -- inciting audience belly laughs for his entire half-hour presentation with his brusque personality and blunt humor. Icahn was successful in boosting Herbalife's (HLF) share price by more than 2% in post-market trading after throwing more fuel on the fire of a years-long battle with fellow activist Bill Ackman over Herbalife's market worth.
Icahn said he's hoping the Federal Trade Commission will allow him accelerated permission to purchase up to 50% of Herbalife's market cap, up from the 35% he's currently entitled to hold, and noted that the FTC is very confident that the nutrition-products distributor is by no means a pyramid scheme -- an allegation Ackman began circulating in December 2012 after his hedge fund Pershing Square unveiled a $1 billion short position on Herbalife stock.
"I'm not just playing games buying the stock -- I think it works," Icahn said, noting, "I think Herbalife is certainly a candidate to go private."