Trust in business worldwide rebounded modestly last year, after plummeting in the face of a severe recession, but informed adults believe companies will revert to their old ways as memory of the downturn fades.

Fifty-four percent of adults told the Edelman Trust Barometer that they trusted business last year, up from 50 percent in 2008, according to survey results released on Tuesday. Corporations' public image improved most sharply in the United States and Italy, while it fell in Russia.

But after a credit crisis that shook the world economy and led big financial institutions including Bank of America Corp and Citigroup Inc to turn to Washington for financial help, trust in banks fell dramatically.

In the United States, just 29 percent of survey respondents said they trusted banks, less than the 68 percent who did in 2006. People in the United Kingdom, Germany and France also reported sharp, albeit less dramatic, declines in trust.

Banks are now the third-least-trusted industry worldwide -- beating out only media companies and the insurance sector and far down from their onetime ranking as the third-most-trusted of 13 sectors, said Richard Edelman, president and chief executive of U.S. public relations firm Edelman, which commissioned the study.

After seeing big banks receive hundreds of billions of dollars in government support -- and continue to fight for the right to pay their top officials millions of dollars in bonuses -- average people have come to think of the banking sector as one in which the rule heads I win, tails you lose applies, Edelman said.

The most-trusted sectors were the technology, biotech and auto sectors.


Another major change in public thinking the survey highlighted is that people no longer regard a company's financial performance as a signal that it is trustworthy.

Financial returns ranked last of the 10 factors that Americans said they considered in evaluating a company's trustworthiness, behind transparency, treating employees well and pricing fairly.

That is down from 2006, when financial performance was the third-most-important factor.

It used to be all about have a great CEO, have great financial results, plus great products and you're home free, you have a great company, Edelman said. Now with the trust-bust of the past several years, people say: 'I have to have a company I can trust and a transparent operation, plus great products.' And then the financials and the CEO thing are at the bottom.

Respondents also worried that the lessons of the financial crisis -- which encouraged many big companies to take more conservative approaches in their funding and other practices -- would be forgotten once the economy mended. Fully 70 percent expected a return to business as usual to follow a recovery.

The survey took the opinions of 4,875 college-educated, relatively affluent people aged 25 to 64 in 22 countries from September 29 through December 6.

(Reporting by Scott Malone, editing by Gerald E. McCormick)