Each Monday, in the Business Calendar of The Post's Washington Business section, local brokerage houses list 65 to 75 seminars on such subjects as "How to Manage your Money in a Changing Economy," "Commodity Trading for Beginners," "Option Strategies" and "Tax Shelters for the Timid."
Reading through the list, one might get the idea that the Washington area is a hotbed of intellectual curiosity, with hundreds of information-hungry investors coming out each day or evening to meet brokers and learn about investment techniques.
Alas, that is not the case. The truth is that many of the advertised seminars are never held. While the brokers stand ready to give the seminars as promised, few if any investors show up to hear their words of wisdom.
To understand why brokers keep scheduling seminars, it helps to remember that the brokerage business is, after all, a sales business. Brokers depend on commissions to make a living and commissions are generated by the buying and selling of stocks, bonds and other financial products.
To earn commissions, brokers must attract clients, and so they spend much of their time "prospecting," either by "cold-calling" people they don't know, or by holding seminars. Either way, the broker's goal is to open new accounts.
The investor who goes to a seminar will be asked for his name, address and phone number and should expect the broker to pursue him -- sometimes aggressively -- to win his business. At the same time, simply going to a seminar does not obligate one to invest in anything.
If a seminar does spark an investor's interest, said Stephen A. Goldsworth, manager of the Prudential Bache office in Tysons Corner, the client and the broker should "sit down and learn about each other" before any investments are made.
Under the New York Stock Exchange's "Know Your Customer," rule the broker is obligated to find out what investments are suitable for his client. And the client is wise to adhere to that oldest of consumer rules, "Caveat Emptor" -- "Let the Buyer Beware."
Seminars are a bread-and-butter activity for Glenn Ryhanych, a 25-year-old broker at Folger Nolan Fleming Douglas in the District who is working hard to built his client base.
Ryhanych said many of his seminar notices draw either no one, or only one or two people or phone calls. Two to three people at a seminar is considered "a good turnout." His best results, he said, take place at seminars held in public libraries where the library staff helps advertise the meeting.
At the other end of the experience spectrum is George C. Schwelling, a senior vice president at Shearson Lehman/American Express in the District and a veteran broker who says he manages accounts totaling from $12 million to $15 million.
For a time, Schwelling was offering a free lunch at Duke Zeibert's to talk about his dividend rollover plan. He was drawing 15 to 17 people but paying $200 to $300 a lunch. While it was successful, it also was costly. He since has opted for a more modest sandwich-and-soft-drink lunch in the office but draws only three or four people a session.
Schwelling's dividend rollover plan is based on trading in NYSE-listed issues that generally have yields of 6 to 10 percent. He buys and sells these stocks when they are in the lower half of their trading range.
For instance, if a stock trades between $20 and $30, Schwelling would buy at between $20 and $25, a few weeks before the company issues its regular dividend. He then would sell the stock after it has picked up a couple of points. His goal, he says, is a net return on each trade of 4 to 6 percent, counting dividends but deducting commissions. Schwelling, who says his strategy is "very conservative," claims annual total returns of 20 to 30 percent a year.
Schwelling said he continues to search for new clients, via the seminar route, because "no matter how successful you are, you always have attrition." People move away, their financial circumstances change, or they get bored and want to try some other investments, he said.
Schwelling once used mass mailings, occasionally sending out 10,000 invitations to an affluent area such as Chevy Chase. Some 40 to 50 people would show up, with perhaps five people opening accounts. Ten years ago, Schwelling said, he could arrange a meeting for $1,500, but with the rising price of hotel space and postage, it now costs $3,000.
Some brokers think holding a seminar for two people is more trouble than it's worth. But broker Harry M. Lyle of Kidder Peabody & Co. in the District is ready to testify that, if a broker keeps prospecting, sooner or later he may strike it rich. Forty percent of the weekly seminars Lyle advertises in the Business Calendar draw a zero response, he says. But 60 percent do bring in a few people -- usually one, two or three. (The other day, he recalls, he had a real crowd, seven people.)
At one of his lightly attended seminars not long ago, Lyle got to talking with a man who turned up for a discussion on zero-coupon bonds. The man, Lyle discovered, was trying to learn more about investments to help a cousin. The cousin had just won a multimillion-dollar lottery prize in another state. For Lyle, that meeting was a bit of luck.
In time, the lottery winner opened an account with Lyle and while the amount invested thus far has been modest, Lyle figures he wouldn't have had the account at all if he haven't kept running the seminars.
Brokers agree that the most successful seminars -- meaning those that draw the most people and generate the most new accounts -- are the best planned.
Doing a seminar right generally means getting several brokers in a firm to work together to select an interesting topic, choose an effective speaker, compile a list of good prospects, hire a hotel meeting room at a time that will be convenient for clients, arrange for refreshments, send out written invitations with response cards or phone numbers, and call the clients the day before the seminar to remind them to attend.
With this amount of effort, says Rohe L. Winchell, manager of the Laidlaw, Adams & Peck office in Rockville, a seminar might draw 50 to 75 people. "If it is done correctly, it is effective." How many accounts will be opened will depend, he adds, on the topic: A seminar on tax-free bonds will produce more new accounts than one on an $80,000 tax shelter.
What seems to turn all brokers off is the perennial seminar-goer who shows up at meetings time after time, asks a lot of questions, but has no money to invest. Worse yet is the seminar-goer who listens carefully to a full-service broker's ideas, then goes to a discount house to do his trading.
About half of the seminar-goers that show up on his doorstep are perennials, says Lyle of Kidder Peabody. While he doesn't mind telling them about investments, he says, "people forget we have families, we have expenses, we work on straight commission and we don't get salaries."
Investors who want to broaden their investment knowledge before putting their hard-earned cash on the line, and think seminars can help, should take time first to read some of the available material on stocks, bonds, options, futures and other types of investments. These days, the shelves of book stores and libraries are sagging under the weight of investment books. Reading a few will help you cope with the brokers and get more out of their advice.