“Go beyond the headlines to the details and you’ll see that what we have now is solid, sustained economic growth,” Wachovia’s Chief Economist, John Silvia told the second annual NC Invest Conference yesterday.

Sixteen of North Carolina’s public companies vied for the attention of institutional investors at the second annual NC Invest conference in Chapel Hill yesterday.

About 250 people attended, the same number as last year, although 280 had registered this year, said Jenny R. Kobin, director of investor relations for TriPath Imaging. Kobin coordinates the event for the Triangle chapter of the National Investor Relations Institute (NIRI).

The 16 presenters were a bit heavy on the biotech and pharmaceutical side, as are the state’s homegrown public companies. They included: Embrex, (Nasdaq:EMBX); Sci Quest, (Nasdaq:SQST); Closure Medical, (Nasdaq:CLSR);TriPath Imaging,(Nasdaq:TPTH) Inspire Pharmaceuticals, (Nasdaq:INSP); Salix Pharmaceuticals,(Nasdaq:SLXP); Trimeris, (Nasdaq:TRMS); Pozen (Nasdaq: POZN); and Paradigm Genetics (Nasdaq:PRDM).

Others were Red Hat, (Nasdaq:RHAT); EnPro Industries, (Nasdaq:NPO); SpectraSite, (NYSE:SSI); Charles & Colvard, (Nasdaq: Duke Energy (NYSE:DUK); Piedmont Natural Gas, (NYSE: PNY)and Cree (Nasdaq:CREE). The presenters were primarily chief executive officers, something NIRI pulls off because it works through company investor relations officers, Kobin said.

Institutional investors attending ranged from big players such as Bank of America Asset Management and BB&T Asset Management to smaller ones such as Franklin Street Advisors of Chapel Hill, Wilbanks Smith & Thomas of Norfolk, VA, and Register & Akers Investments Inc. of Atlanta.

Kick the tires

Stephanie Haggerty, director of research for 18-employee Register & Akers, which specializes in small cap public companies, told Local Tech Wire, “This is the only conference of this sort where all the companies fit our level of interest. Most others focus on larger companies. I’m here to find stocks to recommend to our clients.”

Haggerty said the conference introduces investors to the companies “and gives us a chance to kick the tires.”

“The conference gives regional investors a chance to meet senior executives,” Kobin said. “What other opportunity will they have to meet this many CEOs in a couple of hours?”

Last year the companies were restricted to those based in the Triangle, but this year drew Charlotte based companies such as EnPro Industries Inc., which makes engineered industrial products such as compressor systems and vacuum pumps, the two utilities, and Burlington-based TriPath. Four invited firms could not make the event for one reason or another.

Although some brokers attended, Kobin said the conference focuses on institutional investors and senior execs who could “talk strategy.” The companies presented in short main sessions then took questions in smaller break-out sessions.

Wachovia’s Silvia gave the keynote address to a luncheon crowd watching the back windows for the snow that began falling before he finished speaking.

Quickly moving through charts and graphs, Silvia pointed out what he called some “misconceptions” about the economic recovery. A primary reason for the so-called “jobless recovery,” is that productivity increases have outpaced economic growth since the beginning of the century, he said.

“This presents a real challenge to the state. You can run a textile mill with ten or 15 workers.” This means, he said, that “the manufacturing sector is actually doing quite well. They’re making lots of profits. They’re just not hiring anyone to do it.”

Silvia noted that “contrary to popular wisdom,” spending on new equipment and software is strong, posting gains of 20 percent and 10 percent in the third and fourth quarters of 2003.

Silvia said he doesn’t think the Federal Reserve Board will raise interest rates for up to six more months. “I bet they stay on hold until there are better employment numbers,” he said.

NIRI Triangle Chapter: www.niritriangle.org