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In Tech Selloff's Gloom, Lehman Strategist Sees a Glimmer

This market is like one of those old-fashioned bare knuckles boxing matches where the contestants fought brutally until one collapsed (or worse).

So forget bull or bear: After the latest "round" of pummeling Tuesday, I now declare this to be the John L. Sullivan market.

I don't have much more to say, specifically, about Tuesday, which saw the Nasdaq Composite fall another 3.4%, the Dow Jones Industrial Average lose 0.4% and the S&P 500 decline 1.2%.

Still, I am wondering what all the folks who declared "bottom ho!" on Monday are saying now.

Guru Glitch

Speaking of bottom pickers, a growing number of Wall Street strategists have become more optimistic lately, as reported repeatedly last week .

Those stories raised the dander on one of my favorite sources. He called to rant (anonymously, of course) about how "technophile" gurus have been disingenuous by clinging to a belief the warnings from Intel (INTC), Dell (DELL), Apple (AAPL), et al are "company-specific issues," rather than representative of a broader malaise.

"Tech fundamentals are not as robust as they were ," he declared, a concern exacerbated by Tuesday's downgrades of Xilinx (XLNX) and Altera (ALTR), as well as post-close news from Lucent (LU) and Motorola (MOT).

"Some of the wheels are starting to come off the bus," the source said. "But because it's tech, there's a resistance to say that sort of thing. The Nasdaq is in a bear market but it's verboten to say it."

It may not be forbidden to say it, but it does seem scant few have had the courage. Many investors -- professional and otherwise -- no doubt feel they've been led by the nose down the proverbial primrose path in 2000, only to find their portfolios looking and smelling like compost.

Nevertheless, Jeffrey Applegate, chief investment strategist at Lehman Brothers, picked up the tech-or-die mantra Tuesday.

"The market has been struggling mightily but we still don't think we've got a cyclical bear market," Applegate said on the brokerage's monthly strategy call.

Applegate's view hinges on a belief the Federal Reserve has successfully achieved the mythical soft landing, which will result in gross domestic product stabilizing around 4%. That, in turn, should enable corporate earnings growth of 16% this year and 14% next year, he said, vs. the long-term trend around 6%.

Double-digit earnings growth, combined with continued productivity gains, should mean continued margin expansion, by 7.7% in 2001, Applegate contends, slower than recent trends but still higher than historic levels.

Based on those forecasts, Applegate argues tech stocks are now undervalued on a price/earnings ratio-to-growth (PEG) basis. At the Comp's peak in early March, the tech sector was trading at a PEG of just over 2 vs. 1.5 for the S&P 500 overall, he recalled. At the end of last week, the PEG for both the overall market and tech stocks was a bit below 1.3.

Tech stocks have "gone from overvaluation in March to undervalued now," Applegate declared, reiterating a forecast the S&P 500 will finish the year (with a bang, apparently) at 1600. The strategist was unavailable for additional comment.

Applegate has always struck me as a genuinely decent fellow. Moreover, he's made loads of money for investors in recent years, and may very well prove prescient again.

Then again, I don't recall him saying tech stocks were overvalued back in March.

Gurus of a Feather

Speaking of which, you might be surprised to find a few gurus did get it right -- not only warning about the dangers of tech myopia, but doing so in a timely manner vs. those who said for years that techs were on the brink.

Back in early January , Alan Skrainka, chief market strategist at Edward Jones in St. Louis, warned investors about the perils of tech stocks. He became officially bearish on the group in early March when it was still considered nutty, even anti-American to do so. (Apparently it still is, given the grief Jim Seymour is taking for his more recent bearish comments on tech.)

In early August , Skrainka raised his tech allocation to 22% from 20%, still underweight vs. the sector's 31% representation in the S&P 500. I've been unable to reach the strategist in recent days to gauge his current thinking, although Skrainka was quoted in USA Today on Sept. 29 suggesting it was time for investors to (oops) "get aggressive." (P.S.: The TVs have been on the blink here, and while I'm enjoying the silence, forgive me if I've missed him on any of the financial networks.)

Elsewhere, Abby Cohen of Goldman Sachs cut back her recommended allocation in tech specifically and equities in general in late March . More recently, she's become optimistic again.

Thomas McManus, equity portfolio strategist at Banc of America Securities, began cutting back his recommended equity weighting in early February , a process ongoing as recently as late July .

In a report released Monday, McManus wrote there are "no signs of capitulation, yet" as of Friday's close, based on the Chicago Options Exchange Volatility Index, investor sentiment, and still subdued put-buying volume.

If he keeps this up, McManus may emerge as the "Guru of the Year" (although I'm open to other suggestions).

Finally, Edward Kerschner, chairman of investment policy at PaineWebber, penned a warning about the folly of "New Metrics" in mid-March , a well-timed piece for sure.

The PaineWebber strategist has recently become more constructive. In a report published Sunday, Sept. 24, entitled "Getting Cheap," Kerschner wrote that "any further market weakness would create a very attractive buying opportunity."

Including Tuesday's decline, the Dow is now down 2.9% since Sept. 22, the S&P 500 off by 4.3% and the Comp off by 14.8%. I guess that makes Kerschner wildly bullish now, but it's only a guess. His most recent report -- published Monday -- deals with various election scenarios.

A PaineWebber spokeswoman said Kerschner "stands behind his Oct. 9 report," but he was unavailable for comment.

To which I can only say (in my best Maggie O'Hooligan brogue): Oh yeah? Well tanks for nothing.

Aaron L. Task writes daily for TheStreet.com. In keeping with TSC's editorial policy, he doesn't own or short individual stocks, although he owns stock in TheStreet.com. He also doesn't invest in hedge funds or other private investment partnerships. He invites you to send your feedback to Aaron L. Task.

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