The National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) recently released some highly qualified "good news." Apparently, the U.S. recession ended in June 2009. That's poor consolation to the many people who are still unemployed and can't find jobs, or the folks struggling to hang on to the jobs they already have. The recession may have been technically over for more than a year, but the hard times are nowhere near over for Americans.
Even Warren Buffett has said, "This recession ain't over." And of course, the statistical situation the NBER has described doesn't guarantee that we won't experience what's termed a "double-dip recession."
Still, these bad times could come with a big silver lining -- at least for shareholders.
Worst of times
Unemployment hit 10.1% in October 2009 -- its highest level in 26 years. The recession has led our economy to bleed 8.4 million jobs, the nastiest employment picture since before World War II.
Despite the NBER's call, layoffs haven't let up since June 2009, and job cuts stretch from corporate America all the way into the public sector. State and city workers are being laid off, too, including important public servants like police officers.
Meanwhile, the layoffs aren't even over yet. Just last week, rumors rumbled that even powerful Wall Street firms like Morgan Stanley (NYSE: MS ) and Bank of America (NYSE: BAC ) could lay off huge numbers of workers. Northrop Grumman, Genzyme (Nasdaq: GENZ ) , and FedEx (NYSE: FDX ) are among the companies that have announced new rounds of layoffs in recent weeks.
Best of times?
All these difficulties could nonetheless help spur investors to become better shareholders -- to start acting like owners, and paying attention to what our companies are doing out there. After all, given the nasty economic situation, there's good reason to lift an eyebrow at the fact that in some corners of corporate America, deeper job cuts are directly correlated with higher pay for the CEOs who make them.
A recent report from the Institute for Policy Studies examined CEO compensation during the "Great Recession," discovering a disturbing tendency for the best-paid CEOs to most aggressively whack jobs from the payroll. CEOs listed in the organizations dubious "top 10" list for "highest-paid CEO layoff leaders" included Walt Disney (NYSE: DIS ) , Wal-Mart (NYSE: WMT ) , and Ford (NYSE: F ) .
Questioning the appropriateness of such behavior would be a step in the right direction for all of us. CEOs who don't sacrifice for the sake of their employees and companies are probably not willing to sacrifice for the sake of their shareholders, either. Investors who cheer mass layoffs are responding more like short-term, speculative traders than true long-term shareholders.
Thinking for the long haul
Given the ugly economic situation, we will all have to remember that patience is a virtue. Now is a perfect time to remember that fundamentally strong companies and economies take time and patience to build. The bubble days made speculation far too easy (and far too popular), and too many people stopped investing with an eye on the quality of companies and their managers.
All this economic pain, the result of a big, nasty bubble, could be good for the long haul if more folks take a slow, patient, ownership view of our marketplace. For example, if more shareholders push for strong corporate governance policies, including scrutiny of lofty executive pay that doesn't match performance, it would be a strong start for a future of long-term shareholding.
Check back at Fool.com on Wednesday, Oct. 13 for Alyce Lomax's next column on corporate governance.