NEW YORK — Investors’ hopes for a happy end to Wall Street’s most dismal year in a decade are vanishing in a seemingly unending string of stock sell-offs.
With an interest rate cut now ruled out until January, the market isn’t likely to find a catalyst for a sustainable rally until early 2001, many experts believe.
"We’re talking bounces, if anything, not a rally," said Richard Dickson, a technical analyst with Scott & Stringfellow Inc. "It’s going to take a long time, in my opinion, to repair the psychological damage that is being done and has been done to tech stocks."
That’s not to say the stock averages won’t move higher during the six remaining trading days in 2000, when low volume of trading around the holidays can exaggerate gains or losses.
It just means that short of a miracle, 2000 is likely to be the worst year for the 29-year-old Nasdaq composite index. The technology-focused gauge is down more than 50 percent from its high for the year.
The Dow Jones industrial average, down 13 percent from its year high, and the S&P 500, off more than 18 percent, are also suffering.
This week’s spectacular sell-offs, including the Nasdaq’s seventh consecutive decline on Wednesday, haven’t helped — although they may make it likely the market will have to snap back at least a little bit.
"The way the market’s going down, I’d say we should see a bump up. But will it go down again? That’s still the question," said Yale Hirsch, author of the Stock Trader’s Almanac, who believes the market is so oversold and stock prices so low that it may be especially attractive to bargain hunters and other buyers.
"One of the reasons I believe we could rally in the next few weeks is we’re getting a lot of bad news, and — what is the saying — you’re supposed to buy on bad news and sell on good news."
Most market observers say it will take an interest rate cut from the Fed to turn the stock market around. The Fed doesn’t meet until Jan. 30-31, and any action before then would be extraordinary. A couple of other January events could also prove key.
Fourth-quarter earnings are due out in the middle of the month. Warnings from some companies about those numbers have pushed stock prices lower, but the market could still react negatively to the actual results.
"My sense is that maybe if you can meet your fourth-quarter numbers, we’ll be OK," said Nick Sargen, a market strategist for J.P. Morgan.
There’s also the January effect, the tendency of the market to rise at the beginning of the month as the previous tax year ends and investors stop selling stocks for tax purposes.
But nothing is a sure thing.
Although the consensus is that the Fed will lower interest rates at the end of January, Sargen worries that Wall Street will get ahead of itself and rally on overoptimistic expectations. That’s what happened this week, when the Fed didn’t cut rates as the market had hoped, and instead just tilted toward cutting rates in the future.
"Will the market have worked itself into a frenzy so that if the Fed cuts 25 basis points (0.25 percent) instead of 50 basis points it won’t be enough?" he said. "Nobody knows."
For investors, 2000 has been less about stock market theories and more about destruction.
Although a few nontech stocks have had spectacular returns this year — Boeing and Phillip Morris, for example, have more than doubled from their 52-week lows — most investors will be poorer this New Year’s Eve than they were in 1999.
It’s a big change after five years of some of the strongest stock returns ever, but Pat Borchers, an office manager in Minneapolis, is keeping it in perspective.
"It’s been a horrible year as far as the techs have been concerned, and for stocks in general. The economy has definitely turned down a little bit," she said. Her investment club hasn’t given up buying stocks, though. "We’ve bought Cisco three times now, and it keeps going down. But I do think over the long-term it will do fine. Just now, it’s a little painful."
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