SAN FRANCISCO -- If you trade Internet stocks, the center of the world last week was the four-day Donaldson Lufkin & Jenrette (DLJ) Internet conference at the Ritz Carlton Hotel here.
Try to imagine a better list of speakers at more pertinent times:
Chief Operating Officer
COO Dick Parsons were there the day after their astounding merger bomb dropped,
a day after the company announced record earnings,
just a week after appearing on
The Late Late Show with Craig Kilborn
CEO Bo Ewald explaining his big new deal with
. Emminently tradeable.
CEOs talked about their stocks before hundreds of powerful professional money managers with hundreds of millions of dollars in assets at their disposal. And the conference didn't just include the big boys. The big movers, the names that trade wildly on the whisper of news, also showed up. CEOs like
Larry Kramer, and
Mark Goldston showed up. It was a major event for anyone trading Internet stocks.
What? You didn't hear about it? You
those stocks and didn't know why they were moving?
That's just the way DLJ planned it.
The hotshot conference excludes regular investors and their representatives, the financial press. Only DLJ clients paying tens of thousands of dollars in fees were allowed to hear what these publicly traded companies had to say, while DLJ guarded the door to the presentations against the public.
Forget the company's responsibility to the marketplace; DLJ prefers to cater to a select group of Wall Street heavy-hitters, giving them an unfair advantage. All week long, thanks to DLJ, the average guy found himself on the other side of the informed trade.
Not so, says Jack Blackstock, DLJ's co-director of research. "We have always viewed these conferences as an opportunity for investors to drill down on issues and discussion points and getting to know management," he says. "But we have specifically asked companies not to release material information at our conference. The media has never been allowed to investment conferences sponsored on the Street."
And yet the investment calendar is littered with investment conferences sponsored by firms big and small where the press
invited, firms like
Credit Suisse First Boston
Banc Boston Robertson Stephens
Thomas Weisel Partners
... but not DLJ.
"Having the media present at our conference helps ensure that timely company news and interesting investment themes are disseminated to a wider audience," says Guy Lampard, managing director in equity research at
Banc of America Securities
. "By inviting reporters, we feel we are doing our part to help our presenting companies tell their stories. We believe one of our obligations as an investment bank is to afford them with the opportunity to enhance their visibility."
Logistically, of course, it would be impossible to invite the public. Thousands of investors would make these shows unmanageable, and, if the financial forums on the Yahoo! Web site are any guide, the few idiots among them would steer the discussions toward CFOs' unnatural relations with sheep. But why keep out the press? What does DLJ have to hide?
"Whether it's something you like or don't like, the majority of the companies do not want the media there," says Blackstock. "The vast majority of these companies don't want to sit down next to a reporter from
The Wall Street Journal
." All the more reason it was shameful for CBS MarketWatch's Kramer to speak at this conference, or for that matter,
The New York Times Co.
speaking at a recent DLJ media conference in New York. Their involvement tacitly endorses the manipulation of both the media and investors. (CBS MarketWatch is a competitor to
; The New York Times Co. is an investor in TheStreet.com Inc.)
, which owns
The Wall Street Journal
, publicly announced its nonparticipation in the event in early December, citing the ban on reporters. "We've asked and I'll tell you that even the media companies don't want the media to come," says DLJ's Blackstock. "What would you do, make me invite the press every time I take a few people out to meet a CEO at dinner? This is an extremely gray area."
For now, such disclosure is indeed gray, and not clearly illegal. But the
Securities and Exchange Commission
is considering rule changes that would very specifically outlaw the selective release of material information. "The free flow of information gets at the heart and the fairness of the securities markets," says Chris Ullman, the SEC's director of public affairs. "Material information is how people make buy and sell decisions. To the extent that select people have access to that information -- and others don't -- that corrupts the market."
To be sure, DLJ is not the only firm to close conferences to the press. But the company is in a unique situation. Of all the investment banks, it is a leader in online trading with
, which holds the eighth-largest market share among online brokers, according to research by Chase H&Q analyst Greg Smith. With that in mind, one sees that DLJ starts to resemble
animal Pushme-Pullyu: The firm yanks toward secrecy while lurching towards openness with an online business that makes trades easier, cheaper and available to more investors. The resulting contradiction leaves the DLJ Direct traders with more ability to trade while trapped in murky ignorance.
Here's an idea: Why doesn't DLJ Direct Webcast from DLJ's investment conferences? At least this strategy would open these private shows to
of the public. Short of that, why would anybody turn over commissions to DLJ Direct, when the firm clearly doesn't believe in leveling the playing field for the average investor?
Cory Johnson files weekly from TheStreet.com's San Francisco Bureau. In keeping with TSC's editorial policy, he neither owns nor shorts individual stocks, although he owns shares of TheStreet.com. He also doesn't invest in hedge funds or other private investment partnerships. Johnson welcomes your feedback at
For more columns by Cory Johnson, visit his column