In early December, KeyCorp invited about 20 sell-side and buy-side analysts to a conference in New York to discuss a restructuring program it had announced a week before.
Obviously, many analysts were excluded, as well as investors and the press.
Many analysts who were left out felt that their exclusion was par for the course. But in the future they may not be excluded if the Securities and Exchange Commission formally adopts a proposal announced Wednesday by its chairman, Arthur Levitt Jr.
The proposed ruling would require companies, including banks, to offer public access to material information to all analysts, retail investors, and journalists by allowing them to participate in conference calls or Internet dialogues.
Among those excluded from the KeyCorp meeting was Nancy Bush, an analyst at Ryan, Beck & Co. in Livingston, N.J. "The KeyCorp meeting was the most egregious" act of selective disclosure "that I have ever heard of," she said.
Another analyst who had been excluded was Diana Yates, of A. G. Edwards & Sons Inc. in St. Louis. Ms. Yates cheered Mr. Levitt's proposal. She said, "Some analysts are left out of the loop."
Commercial and investment banks often exclude journalists as well. Within the last two months at least two investment banks refused to allow American Banker reporters to cover conferences that featured top executives of banks across the country. Among them were Lehman Brothers and Goldman, Sachs & Co.
Both gave the same reason: The chief executives feel uncomfortable with the press there, because sometimes reporters misinterpret what is said.
"Banks are probably as guilty as any other group of selectively disclosing information," said David Trone, a bank analyst at Credit Suisse First Boston. "Banks generally underestimate what 'material' information is, especially in today's nervous market."
Two years ago First of America Corp. - which was bought by Cleveland's National City Corp. - told one analyst it was suffering from serious customer attrition, but "I did not find out until several days later, after the stock was crushed," Mr. Trone said. This kind of situation "happens all the time," he said.
Mr. Trone pointed out that Michael Mayo, another Credit Suisse First Boston analyst, who is bearish on banks, has been "disinvited to analysts' meetings."
First Union has also been accused of excluding analysts from certain meetings. Two years ago Edward Crutchfield, the company's chairman, barred Tom Brown, an analyst who had criticized the company, from First Union's premises.
This year the company yanked some of its business from Bear, Stearns & Co. after one of its analysts, Sean Ryan, spoke negatively about First Union.
In response to such criticisms, Virginia Mackin, First Union's spokesperson, said Wednesday that "we have always complied with our disclosure obligations. We take them very seriously."
The critical question is what constitutes material information. "It is hard to distinguish if material information," came out of KeyCorp's meeting, said Ms. Yates of A.G. Edwards. "But when a company is having problems, a meeting of any kind could be material."
KeyCorp declined to comment on its analysts' meeting, but said its conference calls are designed for analysts.