(Business reputation poll story updated for Goldman Sachs annual letter and General Motors earnings)ROCHESTER, N.Y. (TheStreet) -- Americans are just barely willing to view the corporate set in a more positive light even as the country moves out from its most recent recession, an annual poll from Harris Interactive (HPOL) reported on Monday.
81% of Harris Interactive survey respondents described the business world's reputation as "not good" or "terrible." That's down from last year's 88% of poll respondents maintaining a very negative view of corporations, but it was still the second-most negative outlook expressed by Americans for their leading corporations since Harris Interactive began the poll.
Of course, it's important to remember that this has never been a poll that highlights the high marks received by the corporate sector from the public. The lowest-ever percentage of survey respondents indicating that the business world's reputation was "not good" or "terrible" was 68% in 2002.
What's more, certain corporate bad apples can have an outsized effect on public perception. Think
or Worldcom, and even fictional creations like Gordon Gekko, coming back to a movie theater near you soon in
Wall Street 2
Even the most trusted man in the markets,
, can't muster enough good will from Main Street to make Wall Street seem as safe as Omaha. Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway was the company that received the highest marks for reputation in the Harris Interactive poll, just ahead of
Johnson & Johnson
The poll was as much about the corporations that remain at the bottom of the reputational rankings as those companies, like Berkshire Hathaway, at the top. And there's no doubt that right now, as much as the Tea Partiers love to hate Obama, a broad swath of Americans continue to love to hate corporations, especially those corporations that received big federal bailouts.
In fact, nine of the 10 worst reputation companies in the U.S. were recipients of government bailouts, including failed automakers
On Wednesday morning, General Motors said it lost $4.3 billion in the second half of 2009, but CFO Chris Liddell said the automaker will likely be profitable for the first quarter 2010 as well as the current year.
Who's Who of the Hated
in the poll reads like a cast of primary characters in the most recent financial crisis, from the auto companies to the U.S. housing market and the financial wizards on Wall Street who piled toxic debt as high as the turtles in Dr. Seuss's cautionary tale of imperial hubris,
Yertle the Turtle
finished dead last in reputational ranking, garnering the unenviable lowest reputational score since Enron in 2005.
was not far behind, joining Freddie Mac and insurance whipping boy
as the triumvirate of companies with reputational scores below the Harris Interactive threshold of 50 points. Firms scoring below 50 points in previous years have been in the habit of ceasing to exist.
Freddie Mac replaced AIG as the worst of the worst in 2009.
Another market villain who made its first appearance in 2009 among the worst of the reputational lot was
. Goldman barely edged above a score of 50, though it is probably safe to say the low score is indicative of the public relations woes that continue to pester the Wall Street titan, as opposed to a red flag for Goldman's viability.
On Wednesday morning, Goldman Sachs released its annual letter to shareholders. Goldman defended the bonuses that have incurred so much public wrath, and noted that bonuses paid to employees -- described in the letter as Goldman's "most important asset" -- were lower in 2009 than previous years. The annual letter also acknowledged Goldman Sach's public relations problem: "We have not been blind to the attention on our industry and, in particular, on Goldman Sachs, with respect to compensation," the letter reads.
Also notable among Goldman letter counter-attacks on its poor public perception was the Goldman statement that it did not make big gains by betting against the mortgage market, while it advised clients to keep buying mortgage products. This alleged practice of benefiting from the mortgage market implosion while clients suffered and the market crashed has been suggested, most notably in December
New York Times
pieces about a financial product used by Goldman to hedge exposure, called Abacus.
The Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission created by Congress also peppered Goldman with accusations and questions about this alleged trading practice, with the chairman of the congressional commission comparing Goldman to a car salesman selling a car with bad brakes.
Goldman also said its relationship with AIG would not have resulted in any material economic loss to the company even if AIG had not been bailed out by the government. As for the $10 billion that Goldman itself received in federal bailout money, Goldman noted in the annual letter that it had repaid the government in June. The annual letter was signed by Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein and Goldman president Gary Cohn.
Goldman was not alone among the big financial institutions making the bottom 10 in the annual ranking of corporate reputation.
Bank of America
were all right there alongside Goldman as reputational bottom feeders.
The carmakers and big banks received a brunt of the negative sentiment on behalf of corporate America in 2009, but the reliably detestable airlines rounded out the
Who's Who of the Hated
. Losing reputational points like it loses bags,
was the U.S. airline that made the infamous business world reputation roll for 2009.
There is clearly no shortage of reputational problems for corporate America, and no shortage of vitriol on Main Street even as the financial crisis, just maybe, heads for its place atop the heap of historic capitalist disasters.
In light of this, it begs question: Which U.S. company do you think still deserves to be Public Enemy No. 1? Take our poll below to learn the consensus of
, and don't hesitate to share your hate by leaving a comment below.
-- Reported by Eric Rosenbaum in New York.
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