Wall Street undergoes big mood change

April 5, 2008 5:55:43 PM PDT
With the start of a new quarter, Wall Street seems to have found something it badly needed: a major shift in sentiment. Stocks punished during months of sharp losses were scooped up this past week as big investors like hedge funds returned to the market. And there's a sense that individual investors - who yanked their money from the stock market out of fear - might be on the verge of a comeback as well.

Certainly, worries about the economy and further calamities striking the world's investment banks haven't evaporated. What has changed is the way investors are looking at the market - simply, that stocks are more likely to go up than continue their precipitous declines - and that allowed the stocks to hold on to most of their gains this past week. After the Dow Jones industrials rose 391 points on Tuesday alone, the stock market's best-known indicator ended the week up 393 points.

"Sentiment is the whole story, and what we're seeing is an improvement in sentiment," said Alfred Goldman, chief market strategist at Wachovia Securities. "I believe the market has bottomed, and eventually all the problems are baked into stocks and we can start looking beyond the valley to the peaks ahead."

He believes the best example of this was seen in the just the past five trading days. Tuesday's big rally came on the first day of the second quarter. Then came three days of disappointing economic readings that stoked more fears of a recession, including a surge in jobless benefits claims and Friday's news that employers slashed 80,000 positions in March.

The data are clear signs that the economy is shrinking, and may well be in a recession. But, unlike previous weeks when the news would have sent the major stock averages skidding, investors barely flinched.

"The selling has been overdone," Goldman said.

Billionaire investor Warren Buffett might have had it right when he told shareholders a few years ago: "If they insist on trying to time their participation in equities, they should try to be fearful when others are greedy and greedy only when others are fearful."

Another sign of the shift in sentiment: the Chicago Board Option Exchange's volatility index, often referred to as the "fear index," which fell to 23 on Friday. The lower the index, the less anxiety there is on the Street, and Friday made it four straight days in which the reading was below 24, a feat not seen since the end of February.

The index reached its highest point in a year on March 17, when it crossed 35. That was the day after news that JPMorgan Chase & Co. was buying Bear Stearns Cos. to save the investment bank from collapse.

What has brought the index down, and helped lift the market's spirits, is a growing sense that the Federal Reserve is managing the credit crisis, using more than just interest rate cuts. Investment banks are using a new program to borrow money from the central bank to boost liquidity, and Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke said he doesn't expect a repeat of what happened to Bear Stearns.

Analysts believe the performance of financial companies - widely believed to be the group that leads markets higher - will be a key to whether investors can hold on to their optimism. Their billions of dollars in write-downs from failed mortgages fed Wall Street's decline.

"I think the market is still very fragile, especially because people feel there are hidden depth charges on the books of financials," said Stephen Massocca, co-Chief Executive of Pacific Growth Equities, a San Francisco-based investment bank. "Right now, people are relieved that the crisis appears to be over, and at the minimum, we stopped draining."

He and others might get an answer once some of the nation's biggest financial companies begin to report earnings later this month - and, more important, provide outlooks for the rest of the year. That starts April 16, when JPMorgan reports first-quarter results, followed by Merrill Lynch & Co. the following day and Citigroup Inc. the next. "Further collapse of the market could depend on them," Massocca said.


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