For most of us, this topsy-turvy Wednesday -- and the mostly downward sessions that preceded it -- resulted in head-scratching and teeth-gnashing as we wondered when the market would hit bottom, then revive.
And then, there are those few people who whip out their charts, graphs and numbers to predict exactly when, and at what level, that will happen.
Who are these strange mystics so wise in the ways of science? Actually, they are called technical analysts, and their job is to sift through reams of market data and glean investor psychology in their bid to find the market floor -- and, in headier days, the peak -- for the coming months. Since it's far from an exact science, the accuracy levels fall well below 100%. But, with the rest of us groping for a sense of where the market is headed after the
Dow Jones Industrial Average
slipped below the psychologically important 10,000 level, it's a good time to hear what the technical wizards are seeing in the tea leaves.
The short-term outlook is patchy. In general, Wall Street's technical analysts, such as Jeff deGraaf, chief tech analyst at
, are anticipating a continued bumpy ride. "We have been looking for a technical trifecta," he says. "Our concern a month ago was that complacency needed to turn to concern, then concern to turn to capitulation. We've seen the step from complacency to concern, but we haven't gone from there to capitulation yet."
There are two options for the current market going forward, says deGraaf. Either the market can carry on with its bumpy ride and grind itself down to a bottom slowly, or there can be a swift and decisive capitulation. "I use the analogy of a sponge that absorbs all bullish expectations: It can dry out over long time or it can be squeezed out, and that's capitulation. If you have capitulation it tends to wash out the system." At that point, the market bottoms, and the recovery may begin, he says.
"The question is still out there, and no one can answer it, if we're in for a continued bumpy ride or if there will be capitulation," says deGraaf. "I think we still have some bumping to go because there are still some excesses in the system that need to be wrung out, but the end is getting closer."
So, what does deGraaf see? First, he emphasizes that the specific numbers take a back seat to the vagaries in investor sentiment on Wall Street. That said, the key number for the
Nasdaq Composite Index
is 3042, the May low. (It closed Wednesday at 3171.40.) If it slides well below that psychologically important barrier, he sees the Nasdaq spinning as low as 2400, possibly.
On the markets, the technology sector has seen a lot of selling, says Philip Erlanger, president of technical analysis firm
in Acton, Mass., and president of the
Market Technicians Association
, a trade group for technical analysts. "Couple that with a market that is trying to see a bottom, investors that are looking for rallies and throw in some disappointing earnings and there's not much in this stew that's worth eating."
The situation has been brewing for a while, says Erlanger, who has a bearish outlook. The market has been unable to deal with the reality that it's not in a bull market anymore, he says. "The inability to follow through on the rally last Friday means we are in a distribution phase, and that means there are more sellers than buyers and that's what got us to this point."
Still, there are some areas of value, Erlanger says. Some stocks are holding up, most notably energy and drug stocks, and also basic nondurable products, like tobacco and consumer staples -- the types of stocks that do well in times of uncertainty, he says.
Gary Kaltbaum, a technical analyst at
, sees the bumpiness in the market as a buying opportunity. "We are buying all the leading companies in all the leading groups with good revenue and earnings," he says. "I'm not saying we're going to 2500, but a panic is a good time to buy."
Another good indication of the current downward trend is a drop off in
short-selling activity, Erlanger says. Short-selling, a bearish strategy that involves selling borrowed stock in hopes of buying it back later at a lower price, can be a contrarian indicator of the market's sentiment. People have to buy back the stock that is sold short, he says, but now everyone is looking for the bottom as the time to buy. "In 1991 and 1994 there were huge levels of short-selling, but now it's at its lowest level in decades and that is not a healthy picture."
Short-selling will only improve when there is a good healthy dose of investor skepticism, says Erlanger. "We need to get back to a point when everyone is so disgusted with stocks that they want to short them, but right now there is too much enthusiasm. We're not even close to the sentiment we need to see this happen." (For a closer look at how Erlanger examines the short-selling market to glean investor sentiment, check out his firm's
Erlanger sees bearish indicators from his long-term Nasdaq charts as well. "Three thousand is the support level right now, but we'll get down to 2600 and test that level," he says. "I'm not sure when that will be, but we won't see highs again before we do that. The rally we might see in the next month or so will leave the bulls quite unsatisfied. And once we break down through 3000 there's no real support there any more, even at the 2600 level."
Looking further ahead, can the wizards of Wall Street predict an end to the volatility? That's the million dollar question, says deGraaf. A good indication that we are hitting the bottom is some strong momentum on the upside, he says.
"There was no real volume, and so no real conviction in the rally last Friday," when the market posted a decent rally after a bad week, he says. "We're looking for big volume and a strong close because that says people are willing to step into the market, and it won't be too late to get into the market as it will be just the beginning."
Yet weak upswings in the market could be false friends that need to be examined carefully, Erlanger says. One of the characteristics of a bear market is perpetuating fear with large, scary declines, followed by rallies that perpetuate hope.
"If we see an upswing in the next few weeks, don't get excited unless there is a big follow-through and a very big close," he says. "You need to see if those rallies improve the numbers or just perpetuate the hope. They will not help the long-term situation if everyone just gets frothy about the market again."
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