Eco­nomic fears over­shadow gath­er­ing of tech, me­dia moguls

CEOs, in­vestors, en­trepreneurs meet at Sun Val­ley, but con­cerns over econ­omy, pol­i­tics dim the views

Austin American-Statesman - - BUSINESS - By An­drew Vanacore

SUN VAL­LEY, Idaho — 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 con­sumer­fac­ing 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 sun­washed 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 mar- ket 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 sight­ings 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 re­port- ers 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.”

Nati Harnik AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

John Malone, chair­man of Lib­erty Me­dia, was among the cor­po­rate giants of me­dia and technology at the an­nual Allen & Co. con­fer­ence in Sun Val­ley, Idaho. On Fri­day, Lib­erty Me­dia’s CEO, Greg Maf­fei, pre­dicted ‘a long, hard slog.’

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