Hedge fund confab delivers small ideas, not fireworks

May 26, 2011, 10:29 PM UTC

This year’s Ira Sohn Conference lacked the big, bold calls that have made the event so famous.

FORTUNE — The Ira Sohn Conference is ostensibly an event that raises money for pediatric cancer research. A crowd of investors and asset allocators pay thousands of dollars to hear elusive figures like Cerberus’ Steve Feinberg and legends like Carl Icahn take their turn at the podium; and they get to shake hands with the likes of Steve Eisman, who attained fame beyond the confines of the finance ghetto (a well-heeled and self-regarding ghetto to be sure) with his starring role in the book The Big Short.

Ira Sohn is a lot like speed dating for a cause, as one astute New York Times blogger pointed out, but with all the romance of a national debate club final. The bold-faced names (well, bold faced within the hedge fund industry) each have 15 minutes to make a case for why you should dive into CrossTex Energy (XTXI), pick up some shares of Tiffany & Co. (TIF), or, goddammit, scream about why you should contribute to the charity of your choice.

But for a couple of years, Ira Sohn was also a place where a hedge fund manager would warn us of big trouble to come, like Paul Revere in a dark suit saying that the British were coming. It was at the 2008 conference that David Einhorn said that he was short Lehman Brothers stock – an investment thesis that exposed all that was wrong with Wall Street, and that later made its way from the business section to the front page when Lehman actually collapsed. Eisman’s 2011 presentation on for-profit education led to a congressional inquiry into the industry. Jim Chanos, a conference regular, hasn’t shaken the firmament with an investment call at the conference, but his reputation precedes him as the guy who said that the Enron emperors had no clothes.

Ira Sohn feels a little like the church where people gather to renew their faith in the gospel of hedge fund managers as truth tellers, soothsayers and heroes. This year the congregation packed the venue, filled an overflow room (and part of a press room), and raised more than $3.5 million.

Sadly for the faithful, this year’s presenters didn’t deliver on a big picture, provocative, and most of all, Important Big Idea. Once the charitable wrapper was peeled away, the meat at Ira Sohn was pretty much the same as at any other investment confab. This company’s CAGR is growing like a weed… that company is “misunderstood” by the market… elusive loan growth… good EBITDA multiples. It’s heady stuff for those who spend the bulk of their lives in front of a Bloomberg terminal. For the plebes, it’s a gurgling word stream of dense financial detail, punctuated by puns and strained metaphors. Chanos didn’t even give us the anti-China (or Japan) screed that we’ve come to expect, instead offering a more banal short position against some solar and wind power companies.

Even though we didn’t get a lot of grand ideas (Einhorn came the closest with his plea to have Steve Ballmer fired), there were some heroic moments. Jeffrey Gundlach arrived dressed like DJ Mark Ronson and whipped through a presentation that was part art history lesson, part pornography (I kid! Well, sort of…), and part argument for natural gas and against housing.

Steve Feinberg, a self-proclaimed terrible speaker, gave a quite coherent talk on why he’s investing in RMBS. Steve Eisman might have found another kid to bet against.

Bill Ackman, who is buying Family Dollar (FDO), came the closest to Catskill Mountain resort-worthy stand up comedy.

Jeffrey Aronson, of Centerbridge Partners, explained why he’s buying CIT (CIT). When he said that the lender could be an acquisition target attendees took notice, but it wasn’t until he evoked the name of John Thain that people really started to nod in agreement. Maybe Aronson can begin and end his next talk by saying, “My Money’s on Thain,” and cut 14 minutes out of the presentation.

And Carl Icahn (Uncle Carl) ended the conference with a rambling speech that took us back in time to his humble roots, and then thrust us all right to back to the present where he is filthy rich. The takeaway: Icahn is investing in the only sure bet out there, himself.

Sohn wasn’t the blockbuster event that it has been in the past; and with the world “normalizing,” the Federal Reserve keeping us awash in liquidity, and the memory of the great meltdown receding, it may be a long time before a hedge fund manager can be a hero again. Until then, it’s back to the boring business of making tons of money.