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AMERICANS TAKE SURPRISINGLY BENIGN VIEW OF SCANDALS AND DISASTERS ON WALL STREET

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Ivan Boesky and Michael Mil-ken, you may have done less damage than you think.

Despite month after month of scandal-filled headlines about Wall Street - not to mention history's biggest one-day collapse in stock prices - most Americans have a surprisingly benign view of the financial markets these days.A new national poll suggests that the public's reaction is remarkably close to that of the chief cop on the securities beat, David S. Ruder, chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, who told me the other day that the well-publicized arrests are, in fact, proof that the system is not rigged.

midst of Wall Street some professionals who are not honest," said Ruder, who will be returning to private life this summer. He noted that his two years at the SEC had convinced him "that regulation of our securities markets is doing well, and that we are going to pursue a continuing course of vigorous enforcement."

Is the public persuaded? Well, fully 60 percent of those surveyed by the Opinion Research Corporation for the television program "Wall Street Week" said they believed Wall Street was at least as ethical as other industries. (The figure rose to 65 percent among those who currently own stock.) Twenty percent of the cross-section of 1,045 Americans said they thought Wall Street was less ethical than the norm.

Less comforting for the industry was the perceptible feeling that Wall Street's ethics may be slipping of late. Thirty-six percent of those polled said Wall Street had become less ethical over the past decade, and those who gave that response included 41 percent of the stockholders. On the other hand, 16 percent of those responding thought the Street's ethics had improved as compared with 10 years ago, while 26 percent could discern no change.

Suspicious or not, most Americans apparently still think Wall Street is a good place to invest. (Soaring prices since October 1987 obviously haven't hurt.) Fifty-nine percent said recent scandals had not made them less likely to buy stocks - and here, the present stockholders were even more emphatic, with 66 percent saying their habits were unaffected. But 30 percent of the stockholders (and 32 percent of the total) said they had new reservations.

The logical conclusion would be that, while most investors are far from ready to rip up their stock certificates, there are undeniable qualms about the current state of the securities markets - a conclusion supported by the finding that 64 percent of those polled thought the industry needed more regulation. Only 16 percent favored less. (Interestingly, those who own stocks are slightly more inclined to favor looser regulation.)

As for the SEC itself, 41 percent said it was effective in regulating the securities industry, while 35 percent disagreed. Stockholders themselves split on this one, 45 percent to 40 percent.

Perhaps the most striking finding of the survey was how widespread individual ownership of common stocks remains in America, despite all the talk about the "institutionalization" of the financial markets. Twenty-nine percent of the respondents said they currently own stock traded on the major exchanges or in the over-the-counter market, and the figure rose to 37 percent for those between 35 and 54 years old.

The survey, which is subject to the customary error factor of 3 percent, also provided a back-handed tribute to the late Andy Warhol's prediction that in America's future, everybody would be famous for 15 minutes. Who in the financial arena has received more notoriety lately than Michael Milken? Yet fully 82 percent of those polled - including 72 percent of the stockholders - admitted they still had no idea of Mil-ken's identity, though the "junk bond" king, centi-millionaire and alleged violator of securities laws has been all over the financial pages for years.

One percent, incidentally, thought they knew who he was but misidentified him as anything from an author to a candidate for governor of New Jersey. A couple of respondents even thought they knew Michael Milken as a TV personality or lecturer on finance - talk about your unkind cuts - while another fondly recalled him as the character "Mill Mack on `ALF,' the TV show."

Let's indict them, every one.