May 4, 2016 / 6:59 PM / 3 years ago

Slower growth dominates picks at hedge fund conference

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Against a backdrop of slower economic growth, prominent hedge fund managers, including Larry Robbins, Stanley Druckenmiller and David Einhorn, said it will take longer for stocks to rise and laid out best ideas that markets barely reacted to.

Stanley Druckenmiller, Chairman and CEO of Duquesne Family Office LLC., speaks at the Sohn Investment Conference in New York City, U.S. May 4, 2016. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

The remarks come as the hedge fund industry has come under fire for hefty fees, sluggish returns and even a lack of talent.

Robbins, whose Glenview Capital Management LLC has fallen on hard times with heavy losses early this year and last, kicked off the Sohn Investment Conference, an annual charitable event that raises money for pediatric cancer, with a confession and warning.

There would be no new and actionable ideas but his picks from last year, including drug companies AbbVie Inc (ABBV.N) and Brookdale Senior Living Inc (BKD.N), were still good bets, he said.

“While hedge funds play dodgeball, investors go tubing,” he said, warning investors to stop getting caught up in waves of fear about growth in China, oil prices, public anger over drug pricing and the coming U.S. presidential election.

Stanley Druckenmiller, who now runs Duquesne Capital and rose to fame for engineering George Soros’s bet against the British pound, hinted that it was time to short stocks and go long gold at a time central bankers were failing to act appropriately.

And Carson Block, whose Muddy Waters Capital has built a reputation of uncovering fraudulent businesses, laid out a bet against the Bank of the Ozarks Inc OZRK.O, saying the Little Rock, Arkansas-based bank was making outsized loans relative to its assets and was too heavily concentrated in real estate lending. Housing starts fell nearly 9 percent in March, offering further evidence of a slowdown in U.S. growth in the first quarter.

David Einhorn, who runs Greenlight Capital, talked about construction and mining equipment maker Caterpillar Inc (CAT.N), saying there is little chance for a recovery in the mining industry. While he did not explicitly say that he is betting against the company, he has talked about short bets for the last two years at the conference. “We don’t see a return of large scale capital investment in U.S. coal mining, maybe ever,” he said.

Kynikos Associates’ Jim Chanos, who has previously shorted the stock and followed Einhorn as the day’s last speaker, joked that he should look at that idea. Chanos said he is betting against mobile phone operator MTN Group Ltd (MTNJ.J), which is facing significant competition in African markets.

Some 3,000 hedge fund managers and investors crowded into Lincoln Center’s David Geffen Hall in New York, spreading arms and legs to be patted down by security as the presence of protesters sparked unusually tight security.

The mood was darker than usual, with the hedge funds down, on average, 1.5 percent this year and some, including Robbins’ Glenview Capital Management, off much more. The broader stock market is up roughly 1 percent. Investors, too, seemed unimpressed by many of the speaker’s picks, with stocks such as barely moving after being named a top investment pick.

John Khoury, who runs Long Pond Capital and boasts an impressive 16 percent average annual return since launching his fund in 2010, pitched Hyatt, saying the hotel chain’s high-end business and leisure travelers would protect it from competition from home-sharing company Airbnb. He said he did not endorse the entire hotel industry, but Hyatt’s stock price moved little, inching only modestly into positive territory.

Amazon, a huge hit in 2015, failed to move higher after Chamath Palihapitiya, who runs venture capital firm Social Capital, pitched it. The company will be a $3 trillion company by 2025, he said, noting that its subscription service, Amazon Prime, is just beginning to find favor with customers.

It was also noteworthy that investors talked mostly about names they picked long ago. Activist investor Jeff Smith, whose $5 billion Starboard Value fund just won seats on Yahoo Inc’s YHOO.O board, talked about pharmaceutical company Depomed Inc DEPO.O, where he is also looking for board seats. He said management’s desire to stay independent could be harming other shareholders and that it is an attractive takeover target.

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Meanwhile, Einhorn said he was back into a stock that he has liked before, General Motors Co (GM.N), throwing cold water on the idea that ride sharing companies will take a bite out of car sales.

Meanwhile, Richard Deitz, who runs VR Capital Group, said he sees a bright light in Europe and that he is betting on Greek debt and banks, because he thinks banks will be overcapitalized in several years.

While fund managers mingled over coffee and cookies during intermissions, protesters calling themselves Hedge Clippers said in an open letter to Sohn management that some of its billionaire guests and presenters are causing cancer by investing in companies that pollute and bankrolling political candidates who are denying the impact of climate change.

Additional reporting by Trevor Hunnicutt and Sam Forgione; Editing by Steve Orlofsky

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