When cancelled conference slots get tongues wagging

November 14, 2007

Chief executives cancel conference appearances at the last minute for any number of reasons. Little Bobby’s baseball tournament. Suzy’s recital. A sick pet. A rough night.

But more often then not, there is a non-family/personal reason for doing so, and the market is pretty good at sensing when the missed appearance has nothing to do with a fishing trip. Something is usually up.

For example, when Nasdaq CEO Bob Greifeld canceled his presentation at the Lehman Brothers financial services conference in September, it was amid burning speculation that the exchange was working on a deal with Borse Dubai and Nordic markets operator OMX. Sure enough, a few days after Greifeld scrapped his presentation and canceled a Nasdaq investor day, the exchange unveiled a complex three-way deal with Dubai and OMX.

On Tuesday, Reuters heard that E*Trade’s CEO Mitch Caplan was bailing out on a scheduled presentation at a Merrill Lynch banking conference, fueling market speculation that he might be focusing his energies on getting a deal done instead. After all, the firm’s stock has been on a roller-coaster ride since Monday, and rumors of on-again, off-again talks between E*Trade and rival brokerage TD Ameritrade began to swirl again this week.

At that same conference, Merrill Lynch’s star banker Greg Fleming canceled his appearance. Scheduling conflict? Mmmmm, maybe. But Merrill is reportedly close to announcing the hiring of John Thain , NYSE’s chief, as CEO of the firm, a position some thought Fleming was qualified for.

But Greifeld did make his scheduled presentation at the Merrill conference on Wednesday morning, where he talked about the exchange’s recent acquisitions and outlined his vision for growth.

“Glad I didn’t have to cancel, right?” Greifeld joked at the beginning of his speech. As the exchanges reporter, all I can say is, “Phew.”

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