Famed investor and philanthropist Michael Milken, speaking before an audience of more than 600 people attending the Tiger 21 conference in Los Angles, said the world’s best investment is human capital.
In a broad-ranging speech that spanned the past to the future and included topics as diverse as cancer and the credit markets, Milken, looking fit and tan in a light blue suit and salmon-colored tie, wove together a talk that beamed with optimism for technology, Africa and an aging population.
He said investing in people and giving them access to capital is the winning combination that has changed and will change the world for the better.
For example, he asked, “Who invented the light bulb?” Thomas Edison, he noted, is the common answer. But it was actually Canadian inventors Henry Woodward and Matthew Evans, who sold their patent to Edison. He became synonymous with the light bulb because he had access to capital and they didn’t, Milken said. He went on to cite leadership, with the example of Apple versus Sony and Singapore versus Jamaica. Apple and Singapore were winners because they embraced a “human capital” strategy, he said.
Immigration plays into this people-power approach. Milken said 50 percent of the scientists and engineers in Silicon Valley are first-generation immigrants. Technology and medical research are clearly areas dear to Milken. “I have been funding cancer research since 1972 and I was told that I had cancer in 1993,” he said. “I was told I had between 12 to 18 months to live.”
Advances in technology and research have allowed him, along with many others, of course, to live longer. In fact, people are living longer now than at any other time in history; life expectancy on a global basis is 71 years old. That is up form just 31 years in 1900.
Aged companies, on the other hand, aren’t being dealt such long lives. Legacy brands are being massively outperformed by new, technology companies. One way Milken analyzes a company is by value per employee. In a fascinating example, he showed how the value of an employee at Wal-Mart is $119,000 while at Facebook it is $23 million. That is why Facebook, among other companies, such as Apple and Google, can afford to provide more healthcare, education and vacation programs -- not to mention free lunches.
One area Milken is not keen on is housing. He believes the U.S. middle class is being bankrupted and corrupted by home purchases. Indeed, one study by Nobel Prize-winning economist Robert Shiller shows that if someone had acquired all the residential real estate available over the past 120 years, that person would have a zero rate of return. Meanwhile, an investment in the stock market over that period would have returned one-thousand times the amount of money invested.
In terms of geography, Milken is bullish on sub Saharan Africa, were he says advances in heath and human services will create a longer-living population and bountiful economies.
To be sure, there is a lot of philanthropic activity in Africa. But Milken believes it’s better to “roll up your sleeves” and invest in these area. One way to do that, he said, is through impact investing.
It’s a way to invest in people.