By Randall Osborne

West Coast Editor

SAN FRANCISCO - About 5,000 investors and company executives are converging today on the Westin St. Francis hotel for the J.P. Morgan H&Q Healthcare Conference, during which 300 presenting companies will tout their wares and vie for institutional money.

But attendees of the much-liked annual event will be doing more than that.

"There's a whole 'shadow' conference that goes on," said Alex Zisson, managing director of J.P. Morgan Chase & Co., which became the largest private banking operation in the U.S. through the $30 billion merger of Chase Manhattan Corp. and J.P. Morgan Co., completed Dec. 31.

Previously known as the Chase H&Q Healthcare Conference, and sponsored before that by H&Q (Hambrecht & Quist) alone, it took on the new title as a result of the Chase/Morgan deal. By any name, the get-together bustles with activity, and not all of the activity is obvious.

While old friends get reacquainted in the hallways, major deals are quietly begun in hotel suites and private meeting rooms, as officers from pharmaceutical companies sit down with those from biotechnology firms, Zisson said.

Some would-be partners prefer to meet "under the clock," a stately monument in the St. Francis lobby, and walk elsewhere to do business.

On the formal, public side of things, many firms hold news until the week of the conference, using positive developments to entice investors. Zisson said health care stock prices tend to rise during the event, which comprises about 35 percent biotechnology firms, 25 percent services companies, 25 percent device makers, and 15 percent pharmaceutical concerns.

"For at least four days, this becomes the center of the health care universe," Zisson said. The 19th annual conference is larger than ever, and the keynote luncheon speaker this year is Arthur Levinson, chairman and CEO of South San Francisco-based Genentech Inc.

Six panels will examine such topics as genomics, long-term care, biologics manufacturing, and the political landscape for pharmaceuticals.

A spokesperson for J.P. Morgan Chase said people are "coming from as far away as the Netherlands and Israel." Record crowds have been putting a strain on the St. Francis' capacity for several years, creating sardine-can situations, especially during busy mornings such as the first.

"It's going to be very, very tight in those halls," the spokesperson said. "Hopefully, they won't all show up at the same time."