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WALL STREET INSIGHT – Analysts dismiss spectre of crash, but selling’s not over

Last week’s 4% slide due more to recent sharp run-up than to fear of another crisis

IN NEW YORK

AS STOCKS plummeted on earnings outlooks and renewed credit worries last Friday on the 20th anniversary of Black Monday, Wall Street forecasters couldn’t help but draw parallels to that record-setting dire day of October 19, 1987, when the Dow Jones Industrial Average crashed by more than 500 points, and more impressively, a whopping 23 per cent, in a single day.

But in truth, last Friday’s sell-off, which caused the bluechip index to give up on a percentage basis only a tenth as much as investors lost in the infamous Black Monday crash 20 years ago, was more reminiscent of much more recent history, namely the early weeks of last August, when the unknowns of the ramifications of the burgeoning global credit crisis were turning investors’ euphoria over new record highs in the US equity markets into fear, uncertainty and the risk aversion that goes with it.

‘It’s easy to invoke Black Monday on its 20th anniversary as we’re experiencing a sell-off, but there really is no parallel with today,’ observed Hugh Johnson, the chief investment officer at Johnson Illington Advisors.

‘Back then, the markets had been churning their way down for a while, and you could sense the vulnerability as fear on the trading floor built higher and higher over the course of a few weeks. But in the case now, you have to remember that, just last week, investors – and Wall Street economists – were talking about having a Goldilocks economy, a soft landing,’ he said.

Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke started to burst that bubble last Monday when he said that the drag from housing was worsening, and would hit growth in the fourth quarter and in 2008, and his warning was soon echoed by corporate profit outlooks.

Leading companies such as Caterpillar, 3M and Schlumberger beat third quarter estimates, but offered cautious earnings forecasts for the fourth quarter, leading to renewed concerns over the spread of the credit crisis beyond the financial sector.

But while the previous weeks’ euphoria seems to have clearly been out of touch with the realities of what remains a stock market still vulnerable to the unknowns surrounding the impact of last summer’s credit crisis, to say nothing of skyrocketing oil prices that have risen to potentially crippling levels and have oil analysts speculating on when the price of a barrel of light sweet crude might hit triple digits, many other of the market’s fundamentals appear far too solid to invoke the spectre of anything resembling a Black Monday-like panic.

‘Last week’s downturn was more a function of the sharp run-up in share prices over the past several weeks and over stretched positive expectations than fear that we’re about to get into crisis mode again,’ said Tobias Levkovich, Citibank Smith Barney’s chief investment strategist.

‘Various measures of credit market distress have eased lately, including increased functionality in commercial paper and even high-yield debt markets,’ he noted. And unlike the last period of severe turmoil in credit markets in the fall of 1998, commodity prices are rising and economic activity abroad is strong, Smith Barney chief economist Steven Weiting wrote last week.

So, while Wall Street traders were quick to dismiss the potential for a crash of epic proportion, investors’ newfound caution and sober outlook is likely to result in more selling and bearish risk aversion, with the potential for a 10 per cent sell-off such as the market experienced in the month between July 16 and Aug 16.

‘I think everyone was just a little too eager to say that we’d put the liquidity crisis behind us and the worst was over,’ said Richard Maclemore, a money manager at Goodman Securities. ‘Then, when we get a few of our major companies saying that it’s not just going to hit the third quarter earnings, but that the fourth quarter isn’t going to look too good either, you get a quick ‘uh-oh’ reaction, which is what we saw on Friday,’ he said. Uh-oh indeed.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average sank 366.94 points, or 2.64 per cent, to 13,522.02 on Friday. The S&P 500 was off 39.45 points, or 2.56 per cent , at 1,500.63, and the Nasdaq Composite plunged 74.15 points, or 2.65 per cent, to 2,725.16. Friday’s firesale brought an abrupt end to the major averages’ five-week winning streak.

For the week, the Dow and the S&P 500 each lost 4 per cent, and the Nasdaq gave back 2.9 per cent. It was the worst downturn for the indices in two months. The only things that rose last week were negative indicators. The CBOE Volatility Index, often called the fear index, added 24 per cent on Friday to a reading of 23, its highest in a month. Oil surged briefly to a record US$90 a barrel and gained 6 per cent for the week, while two-month Treasury bills rallied the most since Sept 11, 2001.

This shows that investors have re-embarked on a flight-to- quality trade. The week’s wave of earnings reports could offer some relief, as several major names from outside the disastrous financial sector announce their third-quarter results and offer outlooks for coming quarters.

‘It would set a lot of minds at ease if some of these companies say that next quarter isn’t looking too bad,’ said Mr Johnson. As many as 163 more S&P 500 companies are scheduled to report this week, including six Dow components.

Thus far, with 121 S&P 500 companies having reported over the past week, growth expectations for the thirdquarter earnings season have sunk to negative 0.1 per cent, compared with expectations for earnings to grow 3.6 per cent on Oct 1, according to Thomson Financial.

 

Source: Business Times 22 Oct 07

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