SAN FRANCISCO -- This is a rant. Over the three years I've been covering big investor conferences like the Hambrecht & Quist Technology Conference at the Westin St. Francis, it's been getting harder and harder to find out what's going on with the companies. Recent developments, I fear, are giving privileged investors an unfair advantage and shutting out regular joes.
The investing public doesn't know what really goes on at these conferences, and, worse, people are fooled into thinking they're getting the real deal. Whether the host is
Nationsbanc Montgomery Securities
BancBoston Robertson Stephens
, the flow of information has slowed to a dribble. At a conference crammed with presentations, less and less is being presented. And yet in private, secretive sessions, publicly traded companies are giving valuable information to a privileged few.
Understand what happens here: An investment bank invites hundreds of professional money managers to a hotel conference room, where a CEO proffers his (it's almost always a he) company's basic business plan. CFOs often follow with a brief overview of company financials. Back in the day, these numbers often would suggest backlogged sales or hidden gems in a confusing balance sheet. New company developments were unveiled, merger hints dropped.
But as they say in the after-school specials, that was then. This is now: Presentations are often reduced to insipid discussions of the most prosaic aspects of a business. CEOs spout things like, "We are the leader in turnkey systems for total solution management ... right now that's important because scalability is on a different level of scalability than we have ever seen before ... we're No. 1! ... uh, how much time do I have left?"
One can practically imagine a team of lawyers scrutinizing every page beforehand, cutting anything with a whiff of forward-looking information.
So why do investors show up for these things? They are not stupid ... wait, strike that (the jury is still out). Rather, money managers don't like to waste time. But they continue to attend these events, not for the presentations but for the breakout sessions.
After the main presentation, companies and investors scurry away for private breakout sessions where they put away the slide shows and pull out the hard answers. Sales figures are exposed. Business strategies are laid bare. CEOs talk mess about other CEOs. And CEOs who refuse to answer tough questions see their stocks crumble.
These breakouts, not the main presentations, are now the "value adds." Real investing decisions are made here. But the press -- and the investing public that the press represents -- is banned from these sessions. Lackeys from the investment bank are posted at the door of each breakout room to keep out any reporters who would dare invade the camarilla.
Some journalists camp outside the rooms, hoping that sources will clue us into the goings-on. But such information is, by definition, second-hand at best. Most "reporting" from these events is limited to a regurgitation of the official company line.
The SEC is supposedly taking interest in these sessions. Last year,
Securities and Exchange Commission
Chairman Arthur Levitt offered some criticism of unusual trading following private conference calls with institutional investors -- a similar issue. "It doesn't take
to imagine how that might come about," said Levitt. "Any investor looking at this situation would think it's wrong for those who have received this information to trade before the public announcement -- or to tip off their friends, or their family members, or their colleagues in their firms." Still, to date, the SEC has done nothing to put the kibosh on these privileged conference calls or breakout sessions.
The investment banks argue that handling the unruly press would take too much effort. Investors wouldn't go to the breakouts if the media were there, they say. Companies don't want reporters in the room, they contend. Flacks have even said that we're not missing anything -- no material information is disclosed.
Baloney. If it weren't material, these professional money managers would be on the golf course, not in a crowded hotel.
The irony is that conference news coverage is more feverish than ever before --
included. Carol Newman, H&Q's publicist, says this H&Q conference has drawn over 100 journalists -- a 150% increase over last year. But what they hell are they covering?
As I write this, a competitor is on the cell phone to his office frantically dictating a headline for his Web site, hoping to beat the rest of us with this scoop: "Snap's CEO won't say if his company is planning an IPO ... no, planning an IPO. Snap ... no, it's not a public company..."
Value add? Gimme a break.
It reminds me of stories from the Reagan White House, when hundreds of the nation's most esteemed journalists breathlessly broadcast the administration's Message of the Day -- yet none noticed the crew-cut zealots a few doors away waging a war in Central America and financing their efforts with arm sales to Iran. They missed the story, while contentedly being spoon-fed the party pablum.
It was a shameful episode in journalism and makes me wonder what's really going on in the breakout rooms just down the hall. As investors are spoon-fed the company line, who's making the fast money now?