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So who is dragging down the market now --


(DELL) - Get Free Report




Although the unsinkable President Clinton got the verdict he wanted out of the


today, worries over diminishment of a different kind -- earnings -- was deflating options favorite Dell.

Indeed, the bad vibes surrounding Dell sparked a more active day in the options market than has been seen in quite a while -- at least in the Dell pit on the

Philadelphia Exchange

. And with tech stocks in retreat across the board and the


down more than 80 this afternoon, options traders were looking to bail out of the losing stocks and options no matter what.

It's a strange development for the Dell faithful. The stock is a retail darling and can almost always be counted on to attract optimistic trading. Today, however, Dell's front-month options calls and puts were seeing heavy action, although calls clearly dominated. Heaviest today were the near-the-money calls, the February 100s and 105s, which traded around 9,000 and 7,100 contracts, respectively. The February 95 calls, closest to the money, but still above the current stock price, traded 6,400 contracts.

A trader in the Dell options pit at the Philly said all the action today was negative. "It's all call-selling," said the trader. Most of the sellers today were retail investors who had loaded up on Dell calls in anticipation of a stock split, he added. "Now they feel that is unlikely to happen and they are getting out at any cost."

Today's bloodbath in Dell -- it was down about 10 to 91 at midday -- leaves options players with few alternatives. With February expiration looming on the 19th, time decay will cost them valuable premium, even over the weekend. As a result, they must move to sell the contracts back to get back a healthy portion of what they paid. Time decay is a key factor in options pricing and results in the premium (price) of the option eroding as expiration approaches.

And today saw some big-time erosion, as the prices of the calls were falling along with Dell's stock. For example, the February 95 calls fell in price more than 65%, dropping to 3 1/4, or $325 per contract, compared with yesterday's close of 9 1/2, or $950 per contract.

"Who'd have thought they'd go up so much yesterday and go down so much today?" asked Jay Shartsis, options strategist for

R.F. Lafferty

. "It is worrisome that this market has no follow-through." Dell climbed up 4 7/8, to 101 7/8 yesterday.

Other tech stocks were catching some of Dell's disease, as


(CIEN) - Get Free Report

, for example, saw a large call sale in its near-the-money February 22 1/2. A member of the

Chicago Board Options Exchange

(CBOE) pit that trades Ciena said a large institutional player sold the calls to the market maker, moving 5,500 contracts at 11/16, or $68.75 per contract.

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were also seeing some call action.

It may get worse before it gets better, according to Jerry Hegarty, of

Cape Market Research

. "I think we are going to get crushed later today," he said. "No one wants to hold their positions over the weekend." Hegarty said the negativity may even creep into Tuesday's opening.

Other signs were reflected dark clouds over the market. The CBOE

Volatility Index

was up almost 15%, spiking above 30 again. The VIX was 32.29, up 4.12, this afternoon. And the put/call ratio on today's CBOE equity options was inching toward a 2-to-1 mix (two calls for every one put), instead of its recent norm of three calls for every one put.