As stocks flew high, everything else dove

BEST BUSINESS BLUES AND BOONS

January 01, 1992|By Timothy J. Mullaney

In the end, 1991 was the year of Alfred Lerner.

Mr. Lerner, chairman of MNC Financial Inc., entered the 1990s flush from a decade in which his net worth shot up, cresting well into Forbes 400 range. But then real estate crashed, the Feds seized the Bank of New England, and banks such as MNC's Maryland National and American Security looked like prime candidates to be next.

MNC needed more than $650 million to pay short-term debts, its prized MBNA America credit card subsidiary was drawing no offers for what it was really worth, and MNC's stock was drawing hardly anybody willing to pay even $2 a share.

But then MNC sold MBNA to the public in January, raising more than $730 million for MNC and avoiding possible bankruptcy.

Mr. Lerner, who had earlier pumped $180 million in fresh capital into MNC, stepped up again to buy the biggest chunk of the MBNA offer.

In a year when business leaders had to walk a recessionary tightrope to keep the gains of the 1980s from evaporating altogether, Mr. Lerner had to do back flips. But his maneuvers were only the most dramatic.

Throughout Maryland, other business people have had to make fancy moves of their own, with mixed results. Below, some highlights of what Sun business reporters called the stories of the year on their beats.

Layoffs

Question: How do you call your banker these days?

Answer: Excuse me, Waiter!

Layoffs were more the rule than the exception, as at least one of Maryland's biggest employers (MNC) fought for its life and others tried to reverse years of policies that the companies now think were misguided.

The most visible layoffs came at Westinghouse Electric Corp., MNC Financial and insurance giant USF&G Corp. Maryland National has never announced exactly how many people it laid off, though officials said in May that they wanted to cut $100 million in annual expenses.

USF&G, beaten down by overly aggressive insurance pricing and a too-generous stock dividend, laid off more than 1,100 people in two rounds of cuts.

But the biggest cuts came at the state's biggest industrial employer, Westinghouse, whose Electronic Systems Group is based in Linthicum.

Westinghouse laid off 2,500 workers in two rounds of cuts. One followed a canceled order for military planes; the other followed big real estate lending losses by another Westinghouse unit.

Recessions we've seen before, but this one was different. While mild by most conventional yardsticks, the recession hit hard at a class of people -- white-collar professionals -- who did not bear the primary brunt of the 1982 downturn. And they were surprised when they bore the brunt of this one.

"The idea was to get an education, go white collar and get security," said Jonas Ryckis, a Baltimore accountant whose fiancee was laid off from a financial analysis job in July. "In the '90s, that's just not so. There's no safety to fall back on."

Crashes: Land and air

1991 was a bad year for crashes. USAir saw its profits crash, AT&T and Bell companies saw their phone systems through embarrassing crashes, and the real estate market continued to see perhaps the most intractable crash of them all.

The year saw a record high number of foreclosure sales scheduled for Baltimore developments, including office buildings, hotels and town houses.

But most of the auctions didn't work: Most properties failed to sell and were "bought back" by the lending institution that had foreclosed on the original loan.

With all the auctions, it was no wonder that construction slowed dramatically.

Trammell Crow pulled back from plans to build Baltimore's tallest building at One Light Street, and also from an 800,000-square-foot office complex in Owings Mills.

Only two major office buildings -- Towson Commons in Towson and Commerce Place downtown -- are scheduled to open this year. Preleasing at both buildings has been weak.

USAir wasn't able to keep its finances flying high. The biggest user of Baltimore-Washington International Airport has projected it will lose $500 million this year, after losing $306 million by September, and announced in the fall a $400 million cost-cutting program based on wage concessions to save the airline.

"We cannot continue to lose half a billion dollars year after year," company General Counsel James T. Lloyd said.

MCI Communications hasn't lost half a billion dollars, but its high tech met its match in December, when a beaver chewed through a cable and cut off thousands of customers' long-distance service, affecting 1.5 million calls.

Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone Co. had its biggest outage in memory in June, when 5 million customers were cut off for several hours. A computer programming error was blamed.

And the AT&T outage in September that shut down New York's airports was blamed in part on a burned-out light bulb and on a broken strap that disabled an alarm.

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