Thursday: HMOs Down, but Market Holds Steady

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By Andrew Morse and Avi Stieglitz
Staff Reporters

On Wall Street, sometimes it takes a seismograph to detect shifting sentiment.

Sometimes, it doesn't.

Take health-care issues today. After

Aetna's

(AET)

blowup earlier in the week, the rest of the sector has swiftly gone terminal. For a giddy Wall Street, it's one of the first major sector blowups in some time.

Today the group got smacked when

United HealthCare

(UNH) - Get Report

and

PacifiCare

(PHSYA)

disappointed the Street with earnings reports that were in line with expectations.

United HealthCare gave up 4 13/16 to 53 1/4 after reporting earnings per share of 57 cents, exactly what a

First Call

survey of analysts had forecast. PacifiCare slipped 1/4 to 67 1/8 on an unremarkable earnings report, also in line with expectations.

"What you see is what you get," snorted one trader, who said the numbers were an excuse for some investors to take profits. "These stocks were popular with momentum investors and the momentum is definitely gone."

Others in sick bay:

Humana

(HUM) - Get Report

, down 1/4 to 24 1/4;

Oxford Health

(OXHP)

, down 2 1/16 to 77 1/16; and

Foundation Health Systems

(FHS:NYSE), down 11/16 to 30 13/16. Even Aetna, which was upgraded by

Salomon Brothers

to buy yesterday, floundered, falling 3 to 99.

Fortunately, the wrath was saved for just those few. The broader indices were hovering around break-even. The 30-year Treasury bond was down slightly as the government prepared to off-load $10 billion in new bonds after lunch.

Semiconductor shares, possibly buoyed by the

Microsoft

(MSFT) - Get Report

-

Apple

(AAPL) - Get Report

alliance, jumped.

Micron

(MU) - Get Report

rose 1 11/16 to 59 1/16;

Intel

(INTC) - Get Report

jumped 1 1/4 to 101 5/16;

Cyrix

(CYRX) - Get Report

leapt 1 5/16 to 28 3/16; and

Texas Instruments

(TXN) - Get Report

levitated 2 1/8 to 128 1/8.

Relative newcomer

Rambus

(RMBS:Nasdaq) wasn't left out of the party. It jumped 1 1/2 to 72 1/8. Not a bad move for a company that debuted at $12 three months ago and wasn't expected to go much higher.

In fact, Rambus' rise even has Wall Street experts flummoxed. "We're all puzzled," says Robert Chaplinsky, who covers the company for

Hambrecht & Quist

in civilized San Francisco. "It moves in very big spreads because there's not a lot of stock out."

Pioneer Hi-Bred

(PHB) - Get Report

rocketed 13 7/16, or 17.6%, to 90 after

DuPont

(DD) - Get Report

announced it would spend $1.7 billion to form a research alliance aimed at speeding new crop development.