A session some feared would echo Oct. 19, 1987 was looking like what's become standard operating procedure at midday. That is, another day of failed rallies and widening losses but nothing approaching the panic of "Black Monday."
As of 1:39 p.m. EDT, the
Dow Jones Industrial Average
was down 0.64%, to 7967.89, after having traded as low as 7717.29. The
was off 1.6%, to 834.07, vs. its midday low of 813.26 and the
was down 1.6%, to 1298.06, vs. its earlier low of 1272.46.
Given Friday's swoon and the past two week's steep losses, some observers speculated the preconditions were in place for a potential crash today. Myriad reports about the market in the popular press (which is just waking up to the decline), redemptions by mutual fund investors (ditto, for many), and expectations for margin calls were additional elements in the scenario.
But even as the selling accelerated late morning (it had more recently abated), veteran market players said the parallels to October 1987 were limited and suggested they were mainly in the imagination of reporters and editors.
"Nobody is saying 'this is it'," said Mark Donahoe, managing director of institutional sales trading at U.S. Bancorp Piper Jaffray in Minneapolis. "I think it's more that there was no follow-through to the rally this morning and people are selling into rallies. It's a very orderly selloff."
Indeed, trading was heavy at midday but there were few reports of 'bid wanted' situations, unlike in October 1987 when the market's technical and human infrastructure were overwhelmed by "sell" orders and trading ground to a halt in many stocks. (For more on the 1987 crash, go
Donahoe, who was an institutional sales trader for Piper Jaffray in October 1987, recalled "it was a scary time back then. I don't think you have the same fear
now. The fear back then was we weren't going to be in business on Tuesday."
Today, fear is rising, but it's nowhere near the same magnitude, the trader said, predicting buyers will emerge (if not today, then soon) if the market can stabilize. But "I don't see any catalyst that makes a rally," he conceded, noting 30% of the
components report earnings this week and "people are afraid you're going to see more preannouncements or negative surprises."
Timothy Heekin, director of equity trading at Thomas Weisel Partners in San Francisco, largely agreed with Donahoe's observations.
"To me the difference was 1987 was fast and furious -- a huge emotional blow-off. You had two or three days of selloff and that was it," Heekin said. "Friday was a bad day, but it wasn't nearly as bad as Friday in 1987. This has been a steady grind-down day after day after day. People have just gotten programmed to this type of selling now." (Others noted that while Friday's blockbuster volume smelled of capitulation, it was greatly boosted by options expiration and the
rebalancing of the S&P 500.)
The veteran market participant, who was a trader with Salomon Brothers in New York in 1987, suggested it is mainly the press that is stirring the echoes of October 1987, when the Dow suffered its worst one-day drop ever -- falling nearly 23% in one day. The crash on Oct. 19, 1987 was the culmination of an over 1,100-point, or 40%, drop in the average from its high on Aug. 25 of 2722.42.
Heading into today, the Dow had dropped about 2,270 points in the past two months but that was merely a 22% decline for the venerable index.
"Again it's just been this steady grind," Heekin said. "It's orderly -- 300 to 400 points down regularly isn't scaring me. The Dow has outperformed the Nasdaq for quite a while and
now they're coming for the big-caps and sectors that have held up reasonably well."
Among the previous "safe havens" being attacked now are groups such as homebuilders (the S&P Homebuilding Index was lately down 2.9%) and stocks such as
, lately down 5.3%, to $46.92, after breaking
technical support at $50 on Friday. Additionally, the so-called Baby Bells are being thrown out with the proverbial bathwater, with
lately down 16% after reporting lackluster second-quarter results.
That "reasonably good companies" are underperforming the market is a signal "we're getting close to the end" of the decline, Heekin said, although he too fretted the lack of fundamental catalyst that's going to compel buyers.
Beyond crashes and history, the trader said the big topics of conversation on Wall Street today are:
Where Is the Bottom?
suggested this weekend the Dow might find support at 7400 and others have discussed S&P 700 and Nasdaq 1000 as long-term support levels. S&P 500 futures broke a "significant technical level" this morning at just above 830, Heekin said, suggesting the next level of support is at 785. "It could happen today, or over the next few days," he said. "Hopefully, we'll hit this next level and pivot."
recent decision to euthanize Robertson Stephens has dramatically affected San Francisco-based traders, but "there's probably another shoe to drop" in the financial community, Heekin said. "Probably a big guy is going to have to fall or be forced to merge before it's all said and done." Heekin didn't name names, but reports about
role in disguising Enron's debt (as well as the NASD's action against Citigroup's Jack Grubman) isn't doing much to instill investors' faith in the Wall Street community.
Shop Til' You Drop
"What would make me nervous is if continued fundamental data tells you the consumer is weakening," Heekin said, noting that fears about a fading consumer started rising last week.
So, the good news is that it doesn't appear the markets are experiencing another October 1987-type scenario. The bad news is veteran traders say the action is more reminiscent of the 1970s, when the bottom took a very long time to form, rather than occurring after one (or two) horrid days. Given that we're now 28 months past the market's peak and many observers are
looking for one of those "bell-ringing sessions" that augurs a bottom, the likelihood is that the bottoming process still has a long way to go.
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.