Originally created 02/16/02

Market and analysts divided about outlook for stocks



NEW YORK -- The stock market's best upward moves are often a real struggle, coming, analysts say, from climbing a "wall of worry." There's a lot to be said about investors buying stocks - even reluctantly - when earnings remain lackluster and the economy is still limping.

Some bullish analysts say Wall Street might be poised for a healthier advance than it's seen in a while. But more bearish folks say investors should remain cautious, because there's still a lot to fret about.

Both arguments had merit this past week, which the market ended mixed. The Dow Jones industrials gained more than 150 points, and the Standard & Poor's 500 index inched up about 8. But the Nasdaq composite index slipped 13 points for the week.

The bulls contend that the market stands ready to advance. After all, investors did do some buying this past week despite having plenty to worry about. First, there's the uncertain economy. Second, there were more accounting concerns - which on Friday included tech companies IBM and Nvidia - fueled by the Dec. 2 collapse of Enron.

And, yet, "We actually stopped going down," said Arthur Hogan, chief market analysts at Jefferies & Co. "That is the first step."

Hogan could even make a case for the week's extremely light trading volume, which often indicates that many skittish traders remained on the sidelines, too nervous about the economy to buy stocks.

"Light volume can be explained away," Hogan said. "People really don't know what to do. You can sell stocks, which we did for three weeks. You can do nothing, which a lot of people did this week and at least isn't selling. Or you can buy, which people are starting to do."

Hogan also believes Wall Street's Enronitis is fading.

"It's more smoke and mirrors, and people are figuring that out," he said.

The bears' argument for why the market isn't headed higher anytime soon boils down to earnings, the economy and Enron.

"We are seeing greater focus on company's balance sheets. It's almost like land mines," said Chris Wolfe, equity market strategist for J.P. Morgan Private Bank.

Investors are fearful that more companies cook their books, Wolfe said. That means investors will pay greater attention to this year's batch of annual reports, which companies will be releasing in earnest in the next two months.

"For now the air is somewhat cloudy over earnings numbers and how creative accounting may have created them," said Alan Ackerman, executive vice president of Fahnestock & Co.

One thing analysts seem to agree on, if not the timing of the advance, is the size of the market's upside potential. That is, modest - the bull market of the late '90s won't be repeated in the near future.

"Five years of 20 percent moves up on the S&P was unheard of before. But to thousands of investors who came in there then, they don't know anything else. That is the norm," said Rafael Tamargo, director of equity research at Wilmington Trust. "Now it is about getting expectations in line."

Wall Street ended the week mostly higher with only the Nasdaq finishing lower.

For the week, the Dow rose 158.80, or 1.6 percent, to 9,903.04, despite losing 98.95 Friday.

The Nasdaq registered a weekly loss of 13.68, or 0.8 percent, after falling 38.17 to 1,805.20 Friday.

The S&P 500 advanced 7.96, or 0.7 percent, for the week, closing at 1,104.18 despite a loss of 12.30 Friday.

The Russell 2000 index, the barometer of smaller company stocks, finished the week up 2.58, or 0.6 percent, after slipping 1.50 to 469.25 Friday.

The Wilshire Associates Equity Index, which represents the combined market value of all New York Stock Exchange, American Stock Exchange and Nasdaq issues, ended the week at $10.315 trillion, up $66.15 billion from the previous week. A year ago the index was $12.029 trillion.