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2HRS2GO: CSFB sets webcast example for conferences

COMMENTARY --It's about time investment banks adopted modern media technology.

I'm listening to a presentation from the chairman and co-CEO of wireless technology vendor Research In Motion (Nasdaq: RIMM), but I'm not in the same room with him. RIMM's head honcho is more than 750 miles from me, but his voice is coming out of my PC's speakers.

CS First Boston started webcasting its annual technology conference last year, and you can catch it again this time around at the bank's Technology Group website. Other investment conferences use webcasts, but they're only available to clients and, in a few cases, the press.

Anyone can tune into the formal presentations at the CSFB show, although the bank doesn't really want to talk up the idea. "We don't broadcast that fact," said Cheryl Popp, vice-president of marketing for the CSFB Technology Group. "It's a client service."

Maybe, but it's remains freely available right now, and there's no reason why you shouldn't tune in, if you can. This is as close as individual investors are ever going to get to listening to the spiels that fund managers get on a regular basis.

You're not likely to hear anything new. Executives are careful about what they say publicly, and the post-presentation breakout sessions are closed to anyone who isn't a client of the investment bank. Press has always been locked out of those things, so that's nothing new.

Incidentally, these conferences always justify the closed breakouts by saying executives don't reveal material information there anyway, but simply want a private forum to make fund managers more comfortable. "The companies presenting here are very Reg FD compliant," Popp said, referring to the new guidelines governing information disclosure by publicly-traded. companies.

Reporters have long suspected otherwise. If nothing material is revealed, why close the breakouts at all? RIMM co-CEO James Balsillie this morning unintentionally underscored the lie as he mentioned that his company was working with America Online (NYSE: AOL): "I can't really say their date. There's media here."

I can only assume that he would have said something if reporters weren't there. Try justifying that one under Reg FD.

But regardless of how companies choose to interpret disclosure rules, other investment banks ought to openly webcast their conferences also. Everybody wins with a public webcast: the bank, the public, the presenters.

Executives can deliver their messages to a broader audience. Banks get cheap publicity. Individual investors -- whose voice is increasingly important -- get another gauge for their investments.

None of that would dilute the value of these conferences for the fund manager clients. After all, the largest reason to attend these conferences isn't to listen to a CFO's tired speech and unenlightening slides, but rather to get up close with executives, do some networking and uncover new investments. Most of the important buzz goes on outside the presentation halls.

So why should you bother listening? For the same reason you watch CEO interviews on CNBC or CNNfn. You might not get any additional financial data, but it's your best venue for gauging executives in public. How does a company perceive itself? Just as, if not more, important, what topics is the company avoiding? You can save yourself a lot of investment heartache that way.

You couldn't make those judgements until the Internet arrived with streaming media. Now that you can -- at least with this conference -- you might as well grab the chance.

Other issues:

  • Regarding Nokia (NYSE: NOK), we should all be so lucky to have an employer with this attitude: "The great thing about working for Nokia is that it's not about being perfect, it's about making mistakes faster than the competition."

    That comes from Matt Wisk, vice-president of marketing for the wireless technology giant, and explains a lot about Nokia's success. It's the kind of attitude that let Nokia lose many millions (according to Wisk) on a faulty bet that CDMA would take hold in the United States in 1996, and still strengthen its worldwide position in the following years. Not many companies can recover so well. 22GO>