Shaky Market, Economic Worries Scaring Off Last Year's Dip Buyers - TheStreet

Time was -- and not that long ago -- that a rout in Intel (INTC) - Get Report was viewed as a tremendous buying opportunity.

Investors would have flown in and bought like they did in October 1999, when Intel lost nearly 20% of its value in a few weeks. Investors who jumped in at those levels were rewarded handsomely as the stock blasted off, soaring to new highs in January 2000. Opportunistic types looking for a quick buck would have joined in the fun, helping breathe life into the stock, even if they were looking to sell within a few hours.

What fun it was.

Not lately, though. Last month, the company

warned of an earnings shortfall, which sent the shares off 23% that day. Since then, it hasn't been able to find its feet, and the stock has lately been trading at levels not seen since late 1999.

Buying the dips, long a favored strategy among investors riding the momentum of this tech-driven market, has lately turned into a pretty dicey endeavor.

"The will of investors has been shattered, to a point where no one wants to go in there and buy the dips anymore," said Charles Payne, president and chief analyst at

Wall Street Strategies

, an investment advisory service. "When we do get these rallies, they're extremely short-lived ... it's hard to get the troops to jump in."

The same can be said for

Oracle

(ORCL) - Get Report

, one of the market's two-ton elephants and a leading producer of computer software for businesses, which has had similar problems -- minus the earnings warning. The company reported reasonably strong earnings a few weeks ago, yet still has been hammered in the last week, off about 12%. Again, nobody's come in to lift the stock.

Right now, there is little confidence that technology stocks, which investors have ridden for several years, can sustain any kind of rally. That's in part due to the assumption that economic growth will slow, and that causes uncertainty in earnings forecasts. Stocks, no longer supported by long-term value players, also are no longer friends to short-term players, who counted on buying from long-term investors to make quick money.

The economic uncertainty, brought on by a mass of earnings

warnings, is responsible for a very aggressive re-evaluation of expectations and valuations. Intel's price-to-earnings ratio was lately around 29, down from 63 earlier in the year. That's an amazing fall -- the average P/E ratio of the

S&P 500 is currently 26. By most standards, Oracle's P/E ratio of 87 is still high, but it's way off the stratospheric 177 P/E it boasted earlier in the year.

In the face of earnings

warnings from well-known companies like Intel and

Dell

(DELL) - Get Report

, there hasn't been a whole lot of positive news to refute concerns about a slowing economy and weakening demand. Some traders sense this action as overdone.

"Oracle's a great buying opportunity. Did they lose a major client? Did the Internet shut down?" asks Phil Ruffat, vice president of futures at

Fuji Futures

. "I think a lot of guys are scared. All this

other bad news came out, and there's no impetus to buy stuff here."

So the "yes-buts" are winning the sentiment game right now -- even for companies that have issued reasonably positive news. Witness

Micron Technology

(MU) - Get Report

. Yes, the company reported reasonably strong numbers

last Wednesday, but worries over falling

DRAM chip prices dominated the scuttlebutt, and the stock dropped 14% in the two days following the release. It shows people are still expecting bad news, bad news, and some more bad news.

"People would rather bite the bullet on a stock than wait for a bounce that never happened, and get out before the second wave of selling," said

Josephthal's

chief investment strategist Larry Rice.

Short-term investors have found the picture similarly harsh. Even in the spring, after the

Nasdaq

dropped sharply, the game of rescuing stocks that had fallen for a session or two was still working.

But unlike the days of late spring (or most of 1999, for that matter), stocks aren't responding in that fashion anymore. Traders have been forced to retreat to an increasingly concentrated group of growth stocks, viewed as the safe haven for this style of investing. Fiber-optic company

SDL

(SDLI)

for example, lost $17 last Monday, and bounced $20 Wednesday. Other fiber-optic companies, data storage names and telecommunications equipment fall into this category, including

Corning

(GLW) - Get Report

and

EMC

(EMC)

.

The willingness to jump on a beaten-down stock is, therefore, concentrated in those sectors that market watchers are picking to be the new best buys.

"The stocks that are the new leaders are enjoying quick turnarounds," said Payne. "We're seeing a changing of the guard in terms of real leadership among active investors. People are not looking to buy

Microsoft

(MSFT) - Get Report

and Intel on weakness."

But even those stocks haven't had the same kind of get-up they did earlier. SDL rebounded last week, but it was still $40 lower than it had been the previous week. Some call this selling a sign of the market bottoming out. Perhaps -- but how far off the bottom will the market get?