Specialty finance companies may need a miracle to get back into investors' good graces, judging from attitudes at an investor relations conference here.

Piper Jaffay, which has built a reputation as one of the most active off-Wall Street investment bankers in the nation, played host to about 20 nonbank finance companies at its annual conference here.

Investors, scared off by the segment's recent stock performance and blowups in the auto finance sector, were not swayed by the upbeat outlooks peddled by industry chief executives.

"We invested money in the subprime auto market right before it crashed," one fund manager grumbled. "I wouldn't do that again."

Nor was he interested in mortgage or home equity lenders, even though their stocks have been less volatile. "We like banks, though," he offered.

Many fund managers said they wanted to gauge the attitudes of chief executives who front some of this year's most volatile stocks, including auto lenders AmeriCredit Corp., Ugly Duckling, and Consumer Portfolio Services.

"I'm just here to learn how company management views their market," said one fund manager who has focused on specialty finance companies. He said he was not impressed with management's mood, and that bad news probably would only get worse.

"We're not even at the bottom of the credit cycle," he said.

Specialty finance chief executives handed some blame to the investors from whom they sought capital.

"I've been asked many times what's happened," said Ernest C. Garcia 2d, president and chief executive of Phoenix-based Ugly Duckling Corp., a subprime auto lender, after listing several different companies like his that had had significant accounting problems. "It's because of access to easy capital," he said.

Fault lies with "a lot of people in this room," he said, referring to the 40-plus investors and money managers in attendance.

Although attendees shook their heads, other subprime executives agreed that Wall Street's rush to throw money at high-yield companies had hammered some investors.

"Greedy investment bankers stepped up" and offered millions to companies that couldn't handle the cash, said Jeffrey Fritz, chief financial officer of Consumer Portfolio Services, an Irvine, Calif.-based subprime auto lender.

"It's like putting an Indy 500 engine in your Volkswagen," he said. "After the first curve, you go off the road."

Despite investors' lack of appreciation for the sector, observers insisted that subprime mortgage lender New Century Financial, which made a presentation, would come to market with an initial public offering on "surprisingly good terms."

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