For Anne Tapp, Chase Manhattan Corp.'s stock price has become a morbid fascination.
"I've never watched the market as much as I do now, and I don't like what I see," said Ms. Tapp, a 33-year employee of Chase and a manager in its letter of credit department.
For the first time, thousands of financial services employees are getting personal experience with drops in their companies' stock-the result of broad-based options programs launched over the past few years.
The programs, aimed at giving employees clear stakes in their companies, were a big hit as the market surged. Now employeesfrom mailrooms to boardroomsare trying to come to terms with the recent plunges.
So far, few appear to be panicking. Instead, they are taking a philosophical view, reminding themselves that their holdings are long-term investments.
Certainly that's how Ms. Tapp is viewing Chase's stock. "In a couple more years, it's going to go skyrocketing-I do believe it," she said.
"Stock options are multiyear opportunities, and you just have to not get discouraged when you see the market decline," added Dale Polley, president of First American Corp. of Nashville.
If market declines persist for long, experts say, companies may start altering their compensation packages. No companies appear to be doing that yet, however. Instead, they are focusing on calming employees' nerves.
Some employees "are shocked and trying to figure out what it means," said David Bushley, director of the financial services compensation practice at PricewaterhouseCoopers. "It becomes the role of the company to communicate what options can do over the long term and to encourage employees to share in company ownership."
This month the top brass at American Express issued a statement to employees and the public that its business was still sound.
Rudy E. Schupp, founder and president of $1.2 billion-asset Republic Bank in West Palm Beach, Fla., recently gathered employees to reassure them the company was performing well. The stock turbulence, he said, "has caused a whole variety of emotions."
In the past, options packages were usually restricted to upper management. But a number of big financial companies, including Chase, Citicorp, and BankAmerica, have begun sharing the wealth at virtually all levels.
A survey last year by William M. Mercer Inc. of the 54 largest financial services companies found 17% had instituted broad-based stock option programs, an almost fivefold jump from five years ago.
The programs give employees of all levels the right to buy stock at a certain price for a set period of time-and thus the ability to sell them for a higher price later on. Compensation experts say options have been a popular tool to retain workers, but the situation could change if the market slump persists.
"If the stock is under water for a period of time, obviously it has no value to the employee," said Howard Golden, a human resources consultant in Mercer's New York office.
One consideration, he said, would be to reprice the options. But shareholder organizations oppose such moves, saying they dilute stock holdings. In the latest downturn "a number of CEOs have said they will probably not reprice," Mr. Golden said.
Many observers are paying especially close attention to the reaction of lower and mid-level employees. These "are the ones who would be less likely to understand that this is probably a temporary event, and not a point where you should just go out and sell your shares," said Rose Marie Orens, a partner in KPMG Peat Marwick's compensation practice.
Senior executives, for their part, certainly have taken some licks. According to figures compiled by KPMG Peat Marwick, Harvey Golub, chairman and chief executive officer of American Express Co., saw the value of his company stock and options decline 38%, to about $37 million, from July 17 to Aug. 31. David Komansky, chief executive officer of Merrill Lynch & Co., suffered a 41% drop, to about $64 million.
Stocks of banks and other financial services companies led the market to its breathless highs earlier this year, but they have lately dragged the indexes down.
The drops have been particularly tough for executives whose compensation is tied to aggressive stock-price targets. Senior managers at Citicorp, for instance, hold some options that can be exercised only if the stock price reaches $200 a share. The shares closed last week at $96.75, down from as high as $180.875 on July 20.
Likewise, senior executives at J.P. Morgan & Co. hold options tied to a stock-price target of $104.53. The shares closed last week at $89, down from $132.50 on July 17.
Observers, however, say that most senior managers have learned to take such setbacks in stride.
"Options for CEOs of major corporations are not a one-day event," said Ms. Orens of KPMG. "They don't tend to sell until they're close to retirement or need for other purposes to diversify their portfolio."
At Chase Manhattan, where the next cycle of 10-year options begins in December, "people are certainly aware that the stock price is down, but nobody is panicking," said a spokesman, Ken Herz.
One reason, Mr. Herz suggested, is that many employees have already "made a lot of money" through Chase stock options-"tens of thousands in many cases."