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It happens here

Las Vegas is not a big town for scholarly conventions, but it's where Associate Professor of Finance Jeffrey Pontiff, president of the Financial Research Association (FRA), has held each of the group's four annual meetings. The location, which enables participants to enjoy first-class convention facilities at relatively low rates, is just the beginning of what makes the event distinctive.

In contrast to other major finance conferences, the FRA conference is small—68 scholars from 39 universities in North America and Europe attended last December's meeting—and Pontiff wants to keep it that way. "With a small group, everyone shows up at the sessions and gets to know everyone else," he says. Assistant Professor of Finance Clemens Sialm of the University of Texas at Austin agrees: "It's not typical. There's a lot of interaction among presenters, participants, and discussants."

Throughout the conference, attendees meet as a single group to hear and discuss papers. "Most academic conferences are very segmented, with people staying within their respective specialties," observes Edward Rice, Associate Professor of Finance and Buisness Economics at the University of Washington. "Having everybody attend all the sessions changes the tone of the conference so that people get a wider view of what the finance literature is all about. You get different perspectives and new ideas. Different people who don't usually talk to each other converse, and new ideas emerge."

The FRA conference also features papers that have not yet been accepted for publication. Some are still works in progress. "The novelty is very important to us. These are the papers that benefit the most from academic discourse," says Pontiff, who likens the sessions to workshops. "We want to help academics get their work published, and the vast majority of papers presented in the conference's first two years subsequently appeared in top journals." The conference has quickly become prestigious, says Professor Wayne Ferson, who holds an endowed chair at USC's Marshall School of Business, because it accepts a small proportion of submitted papers—for example, only 3.5 percent of submissions were presented at last December's conference.

Another distinctive feature: Papers are not presented by their authors but by discussants selected by the program committee, a procedure adopted by a vote of conference participants two years ago. "The discussants have a more objective view of the paper and can place it in the broad literature. As an audience participant, you learn much more from the discussants than from the author," according to Sialm.

In comparison to larger, more traditional academic gatherings, decisions regarding the FRA conference are made on a compact time schedule, often with participant input. For a mid-December meeting, submissions are due at the end of August and final selections are made by October. Before the conference closes, participants vote on awards for the best paper and also for the best discussant (another unique feature, adopted by group vote). Those attending the conference are asked to help shape future procedures and programs. "We take audience comments very seriously," says Pontiff. "We ask, 'What worked? What didn't?'"

"It's just the opposite of what is normal," Ferson observes. "Jeff is always looking for feedback and suggestions for changes. That's a novel approach. He would never be satisfied with the status quo; he always wants things to be better. It's brilliant!"

Pontiff specializes in corporate finance, capital markets, and closed-end investing. His research has been published in the Journal of Finance, the Journal of Financial Economics, the American Economic Review, and the Quarterly Journal of Economics, among others. He has delivered guest presentations at dozens of universities in North America, Europe, Asia, and Australia. Along with Robert Parrino of the University of Texas at Austin and Mark Huson of the University of Edmonton, he was a founding director of the Finance Research Association.