Something's been lost sight of; maybe it's the investor-consumer

Posted: Thursday, July 26, 2001

NEW YORK (AP) -- A consulting firm recently reported that a large percentage of companies it surveyed continued to give managers performance bonuses despite the company's poor performance.

''The boards (of the companies),'' the consulting firm tried to explain, ''believe that rewarding bonuses to virtually all managers, despite non-stellar company performance, is necessary to foster retention.''

Larry Reissman of the Hay Group, which conducted the survey among 40 Massachusetts companies this past May examining bonuses given in 2000, disagreed with that explanation, one reason being that, in effect, it cheated those who really deserved a bonus.

Viewing that situation, especially in light of the collapsed stock market, shareholders must wonder where they, the folks who risk their money in the company, stand in the order of things.

Very low, it seems. No bonuses, of course. Perhaps a reduced dividend because of low corporate earnings. Declining value of their investments.

It isn't the only economic area in which consumers-investors rank low, and now that money is tight for millions of them, you can understand they might look askance at organizations that overlook their contributions.

The securities industry had a good thing going. Ordinary Americans had bought into the idea of buying shares and, as they say, owning a piece of America. Their 401(k)s bought more shares. Mutual funds prospered.

But now, in a time of reflection and learning, small investors are wondering what in the world they became mixed up in.

For example: Brokers whose advice was suspect. Advisers who shrank customer assets. Analysts with mammoth salaries for touting companies that tanked. Mutual fund managers who failed even to keep pace with the overall market.

They have good reason to wonder too about the integrity of some corporate managements that have deceived through creative bookkeeping, and wonder too about the accountants who certified the numbers.

The point of these and comparable situations is that the consumer is now viewed by government and industry as the great hope of the economy, the sector that will lead the country up out of the great near-recession.

And that leads to the big question: Will consumers, already battered by financial losses and big debts, take on the task? The answer was expected by now, but it hasn't come.

The Federal Reserve has lowered interest rates six times since January and may have to cut even more next month. Businesses are still burdened with unsold goods. Profit increases haven't yet been sighted.

Meanwhile, the consumer remains deep in debt. Unemployment, though low in comparison to other years, is rising. And whenever stock market prices perk up, they seek to unload.

The market, says Jim Griffin of Alteus Investment Management, seems to be dominated by deeply religious investors. ''You know, 'please God, if I ever get even ... .'' You can finish the plea.

Something seems to have been lost in the big boom. Somebody who said it was appreciation of the customer might not be too far wrong -- and perhaps even close to the truth.

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