Cramer Strategizes the Sell-Off - TheStreet

When the market was down 60 on Thursday and the Nasdaq was falling off a cliff, I turned to my partner Jeff Berkowitz and asked, "what do we do now?"

Berkowitz, a calm sort in the midst of a hurricane, looked up from a screen drenched in red and said, "how about going to law school?"

Unfortunately, I've already done that. So I guess I'm stuck minding the portfolio.

Thursday was so ugly, so vicious, so brutal that it left a stench on my clothes and my hair when I left the office. The sustained selling of the market's one-time leadership, you know the

Ciscos

,

Ascends

and

Intels

, left one thinking that it couldn't get any worse.

And yet it has to. We haven't had the crescendo. The worst thing about yesterday's rout was its orderliness. It didn't have that 33 l.p. played at 45 speed kind of feeling. Stocks just dropped a quarter of a point when you went to get a diet coke. Then a quarter of a point when you gnawed on a banana. Three-eighths when you stepped into the gents. A half when you went out for coffee.

Add ¿em up and you got creamed.

What happens now? Not that I am Clausewitz or anything, but we are drawing up two different battle plans. Plan A is retrenchment, betting that if the market starts down we pick at a few of our favorite names and bid down every point for them, a wide scale, so to speak.

Plan B is the wagon circler: On a lift at the opening, a lift we don't want because it will be false, we intend to blow out of a couple of really bad names, take some losses and get ready to put Plan A into effect for the downturn.

The shocker would be if the market just went up and stayed up, because it turned out that the decline was caused by some errant program trader with a ton of S&P and tech names to sell as sloppily as possible. Always a possibility, but probably too good to be true.

We've seen this kind of sell-off many times before. Without a crescendo, it simply isn't safe to swim yet.

Why did it happen the way it did? I heard plenty of theories. One was that the

U.S. Robotics

-

3Com

deal showed that neither company felt it was strong enough to go it alone, which scared the bulls in those companies and put fear into what was left of the hearts of the network supporters.

Two was that

Greenspan

put a top on the market with his pointed references to a short-term interest rate hike. He jaw-boned quite successfully, I guess.

Finally,

Dell's

stellar quarter, the only landmark in this period otherwise devoid of earnings, couldn't lift its tech compadres. With no other lamp posts in the vicinity, people just presumed the worst and sold.

What do I think?

At the office I call it "down mode." That means that for whatever reason all news is being interpreted negatively for now. Take the USRX-3COM deal. I bought USRX yesterday. Frankly, I thought we were in a different mode, one where the Street would embrace this combination as it had been willing to embrace so many others earlier in the year.

But in the "down mode" the collective wisdom shades everything negatively. We hardly ever know why exactly we are in a down mode. But we do know that we don't get out of one until all the sellers are exhausted.

I think the sellers still have a lot of energy left, at least at these levels. Until we shift into upmode I'm being timid. I'm not a deer caught in the headlights, but I'm not crossing any streets either, even after I look both ways. Let's wait till it gets really negative; then we'll dart back to the long side.

***********************

Pan: They oughta' call it The Main Street Journal: Did anyone at 200 Liberty Street notice the Nasdaq crash yesterday? Didn't make the front page, but every niggling business story did, especially anything out of Justice or the FTC (maybe the K Street Journal?) . How about

Citrix

? How about the new networking world? Maybe the bears were too busy covering to get to dole out their wisdom to the C Section mob. Get me rewrite! (Kudos, though, to the

Journal

for bothering to mention the tobacco win in a San Francisco court. Can't believe the plaintiff's bar let that one slip in to the paper. Cancel their subscriptions.)

Novell

: That's what I get for being wise.

Pick: Ed Wyatt's fabulous garrotting of Garrett Van Wagoner, complete with fan-dissing. Is there any doubt that Wyatt, Lipin and Nocera are doing the best work off-line right now? Am I missing anybody?

James Cramer is manager of a hedge fund and co-chairman of

The Street.

His fund holds long positions in Ascend, Cisco, Intel, U.S. Robotics, Dell, Novell and, in his words, "virtually anything else that got clocked Thursday." While he cannot provide investment advice or recommendations, he welcomes your feedback, emailed to

Jjcramerco@aol.com.