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Enron. WorldCom. Maybe even Martha. Corporate malfeasance appears to be all around us. The result: Some of the most negative attitudes toward investment and the stock market that Americans have held since the recession in the early 1990s.

The performance of the stock market hits Americans hard on two levels. First, the market gives them a sense of how the nation is faring. To a certain degree, the strength of the stock market has become linked with a patriotic sense of the superiority of American business and free market capitalism. Second, the stock market affects people personally. For most, even if it's no longer seen as the road to easy riches, the market is closely tied to retirement plans. And as of April 2002, more than half of Americans (54 percent) told the Gallup Organization that they are “very worried� or “moderately worried� about not having enough money to retire.

According to the Index of Investor Optimism, created by UBS and Gallup, investor optimism has reached a record low, falling 49 points in three months to its June rating of 72 and then tumbling again to a dismal July rating of 46 — even lower than its post-Sept. 11 slump of 50, and the lowest since the index's creation in 1996. The 26-point drop in one month is the steepest fall ever, tied with the decline from August to September 2001. The index suggests that investors are more optimistic about the state of the economy than about their personal finances.

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