Gary Shilling is known as Dr. Doom for his predictions (mostly true, so far) of economic disaster, but he sounded more like a stand-up comedian during an appearance at a conference in Beverly Hills on Tuesday.
Shilling was on a panel called "What We've Learned from the Credit Crisis" at the Milken Institute's Global Conference. The reliably irascible Shilling wasted no time tossing off a few one-liners about economists, a group he apparently considers prone to obfuscation and over-caution.
"Economists are very good at turning simple truths into complex error," Shilling told the assembled movers and shakers. "You can always tell an economist -- he's the one with the hedge built all the way around his house."
Shilling, who runs his own investment advisory firm, wasn't rewarded with a rim shot, but got plenty of appreciative chuckles from the packed room.
Another conference participant, Steve Wynn, chairman and chief executive of Wynn Resorts and a big player in Las Vegas, gave an update on Sin City's struggles.
Wynn, who was one of conference organizer Michael Milken's earliest junk-bond clients at Drexel Burnham Lambert in the 1980s, said that although Las Vegas was not and had never been "recession proof," it was already showing "a little bit of stabilization" economically.
"Room rates are less, but occupancy rates are already back in the 90s" as a percentage of available rooms, he said.
Still, revenue at many businesses in the resort town is down 20% because of the recession, he said.
"People who have lost their jobs and whose businesses are in serious trouble don't have money for leisure," he added, "and people with money are being careful."
But he said the town would inevitably regain its stature as "the destination resort of the world."
Wynn also said President Obama came down too hard on businesses holding corporate events in Las Vegas.
"He uttered a remark that had unintended consequences -- he said he didn't want people who got government support spending the money on junkets to Las Vegas," Wynn said. "He used Las Vegas as an example of a profligate expenditure. But at a time like this, meetings and conferences are more important than ever."
Not long after Obama's condemnation, he said, State Farm Insurance canceled a booking at Wynn Resorts.
"We lost about $8 million in revenue," Wynn said.
Renewable energy guru Amory Lovins, chairman of the Rocky Mountain Institute, faced off at the conference with Barbara Thomas Judge, head of Britain's Atomic Energy Authority, and David Scott, a director of Abu Dhabi's Executive Affairs Authority, which is planning a network of nuclear plants in the emirate, over the future of nuclear power.
Judge and Scott called nuclear energy essential for the future if the world is to wean itself from fossil fuels.
Lovins contended that conservation and renewable energy sources would always be cheaper than nuclear power, or coal for that matter.
"The current technology in this country," Lovins said, "can save three quarters of U.S. electricity -- cheaper than operating a coal or nuclear plant even if building it and delivering its power costs nothing."