During the past two years, U.S. stock prices have been hit hard; first by a recession, then by the September 11 terrorist attacks, and now by accounting scandals involving some of the nation's best-known corporations. Among those suffering are retired senior citizens that rely on investment income and pension funds to supplement social security.
At a Miami Beach senior citizens center, 88-year-old Herman Sacks sits with a frown on his face. He said he has watched the demise of energy trading company Enron and the potential demise of telecommunications giant Worldcom. He said he has watched the stock market falter, and his net financial worth sink with "much regret and sorrow."
"It has impacted by ability to look forward to the same living (standards) that I have had in the past. No matter which security I bought, they have all depreciated substantially," he said. Mr. Sacks said, at present, he has no desire to put any new capital at risk in the stock market.
"At this point, my feeling is that it is too risky to put your money into securities or anything like that. Any money I have right now I am putting into tax-free bonds, at least the principle will be assured. Why gamble anymore? There is no stability to the market," he said.
Investors are accustomed to seeing the stock market rise and fall, propelled by economic conditions and the what economists refer to as "the business cycle." But the corporate accounting scandals uncovered since late last year have raised questions about the integrity of the trading system, according to University of Florida Accounting Professor Charles McDonald.
"It does hurt investor confidence, because a big part of what drives the stock market is information. If investors feel they cannot trust the information coming out of corporations, then it will cause them to be reluctant to invest in the stock market," Mr. McDonald said.
Professor McDonald said, the riskier the stock market appears, the greater the potential returns investors will demand. In effect, they will seek lower prices before they are willing to invest, and the stock market will decline as a result.
Some financial analysts said with many stocks trading at or near historical lows that now is the time to snap up bargains. But senior citizen Molly Mervis said she is unsure whether to buy or shun the market entirely.
"I am bewildered. It becomes a problem (in deciding) whether you want to get out (of the market) or buy when they (stocks) are low," Ms. Mervis said.
Responding to the concerns expressed by many Americans, President Bush is calling for a crackdown on corporate executives who mislead the public about the financial health of their businesses.
"It is time to reaffirm the basic rules and principles that make capitalism work: truthful books, honest people, and well-enforced laws against fraud and corruption. All investment is an act of faith, and faith is earned by integrity," President Bush said.
Senior citizen Molly Mervis said she hopes tough talk from federal officials will translate into concrete action to restore investor confidence and, she hopes, revive the stock market.
University of Florida Professor Charles McDonald said, whether it takes months or years for the stock market to recover is not clear. But he said, historically, stocks have always done well in the long term. "If you go back to 1930, any 10 consecutive years you want to take, there has never been a 10-year period where the stock market has gone down. We have been through World War II, the Korean conflict and Vietnam. If you look at the long term, the trend (for stocks) is up," he said.
But not everyone feels they have the luxury of taking a long-term view. Just ask 88-year-old Herman Sacks. "At my age, I cannot look too far ahead. I do not even buy green bananas anymore. If you lose your capital, how are you going to regain it? You have to go out and work. At my age, I could not work," he said.
Other seniors gathered around Mr. Sacks in Miami Beach expressed the same sentiment.