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2HRS2GO: Conferences&#039 formal presentations lack substance

NEW YORK -- The words came from a fund manager who had just listened to a presentation from Qwest Communications (Nasdaq: QWST), but it could have come from anyone who listened to any of today's formal presentations at the annual PaineWebber Growth & Technology Conference:

"What a waste of time."

Don't get me wrong, the many fund managers who attend these gatherings surely get something out of them beyond lunches of salmon and salad, and these investment conferences provide easy copy for business journalists. But it might be more efficient if they dispensed altogether with the PowerPoint-And-Podium shows and just held question-and-answer sessions.

Are formal presentations at investment conferences necessary?

Executives tend to be dull speakers to begin with, and most have an amazing talent for boosting listeners' ennui by avoiding any mention about what the audience really cares about: details about earnings and revenue growth, and acquisitions. Consider these gems of nothingness:

-- Qwest. Scott Baxter, the company's executive vice-president and chief strategic officer, spent 40 minutes rehashing Qwest's oft-discussed plans to develop its 18,500-mile fiber network into a platform to deliver Internet services for businesses. "I don't think I'm saying telling you anything you don't already know," Baxter said at one point.

The standing room only crowd just wanted to hear one thing: are you merging with anyone? Smartly and not surprisingly, Baxter refused to answer. Unfortunately, he waited until the very end to decline comment, instead of disarming it at the very beginning of his presentation.

-- Nortel Networks (NYSE: NT). Given that the presentation was being given by Matt J. Desch, the company's president of wireless operations, it wasn't hard to guess what most of the lecture would be about. The show was pleasantly uninformative, and Desch didn't have an answer for the one and only question posed during the Q&A: what will earnings and revenue growth look like, especially in the second half of the year?

-- IBM Corp. (NYSE: IBM) Big Blue sent its general manager of global services in the Americas, who reiterated the same line the company has been pushing for years: Services and e-business rock, dude! Well, he didn't exactly say that, but you get the idea. It was fascinating to watch the buttoned down Wall Street crowd find so much hilarity in this innocuous statement: "IBM is a cool place to work again."

Even keynote speeches by energetic fellows like Microsoft's Steve Ballmer tend to be filled with rehashed futurism and generalities about company growth. The only halfway meaty comment of the conference's first five hours of technology and telecom presentations came during the aforementioned salmon lunch, when AT&T's C. Michael Armstrong started his speech by at least confronting two news items, if not necessarily defusing them.

Armstrong said that despite the recent federal ruling in the Portland case, he still believes in the value of At Home Corp. (Nasdaq: ATHM). Armstrong noted that At Home's market cap growth has, by itself, already paid for the entire TCI acquisition.

The AT&T CEO also confirmed something that everyone already knew, but at least he made it official: the appeal will be made. And he said the company doesn't expect any immediate effecst from the Portland ruling -- which he basically called By-God-Unamerican -- because other cities will wait to see what happens.

I suppose that no one who goes to these events expects to hear much from the formal stuff. The main reason all these institutional investors come is to make contacts and hear what companies say in the question-and-answer sessions that follow the ballroom speeches. Because that's where details may (and only may) come out about operations and finances (which is probably why journalists are never allowed into the breakouts).

Leaving aside reporters' convenience, wouldn't it just be faster and easier to scrap the canned slide shows and go right into Q&A? If nothing else, you could probably squeeze in more companies, get everyone out faster, and save money on big video screens.

Not that things are going to change anytime soon. In the meantime, we'll keep trudging into those hotel ballrooms to aim glassy-eyed stares at gigantic pie charts.

Other issues:

  • Dell Computer Corp.
  • (Nasdaq: DELL) Speaking of presentations at PaineWebber, Dell continued to say that it believes any second half slowdown in corporate spending because of Y2K will be balanced by higher sales in other areas. The company hasn't missed estimates yet, why doubt it now?

    Overall, markets were mixed on Wednesday. In mid-afternoon trading, the tech-heavy Nasdaq Composite Index was up 32.82 to 2507.38, the S&P 500 had gained 2.92 to 1320.25, and the Dow Jones Industrial Average was down 54.14 to 10711.50. 22GO>