SAN FRANCISCO -- Life on Wall Street is always a number's game, but never more so than the week just passed.
Monday, folks were trying to calculate what kind of multiple makes sense for
criticized the networking giant's valuation. As the numbers were crunched, sellers took a 7.2% bite out of Cisco, sending the
down 3.8%, while blue-chip proxies ended mixed.
The Comp shed another 2.3%
Tuesday, but its 5.6% decline on
Wednesday, accompanied by sizable drops for blue-chip gauges, had investors sweating over their abacuses (or abaci, if you prefer).
Outsized declines by tech bellwethers such as Cisco,
(among many others) had traders making uncomfortable allusions to
In fact, the Nasdaq traded as low as 3367.06 Wednesday, just above its April closing low of 3321.29. The Comp's ability to hold above that level took on added significance
Thursday, when the numbers finally started working in the bulls' favor. A weaker-than-expected
retail sales report sparked a solid advance for all proxies, with the Comp up 3.4%.
The good tidings carried over into Friday's session, when a benign
producer price index report contributed to the growing hope that the
will not embark on an open-ended series of hikes, as has previously been the concern. But major averages were unable to sustain their initial highs, closing with modest gains.
For the week, the Comp declined 7.5% and the
declined 0.8% while the
Dow Jones Industrial Average
The problem with making any broad-sweeping analysis of the week's action is the numbers that were missing -- namely, trading volume figures. Monday was the lowest trading volume day of the year; Friday was the third lowest.
During no session this week did volume on the
New York Stock Exchange
top 1 billion shares. Similarly, over-the-counter action peaked with Wednesday's 1.5 billion shares, which still fell shy of the average daily volume this year of 1.67 billion. The absence of better-than-average volume, much less abnormally high activity, had market players skeptical that the action Wednesday represented any kind of meaningful "washout" the big declines might otherwise indicate.
But the relative paucity of volume did not stop market players from trying to analyze it.
"I am worried about the recent light volume," Byron Wien, chief U.S. investment strategist at
Morgan Stanley Dean Witter
, wrote in a mid-week report. "If the bull market is to resume, I would have expected buyers to step in with enthusiasm."
Wien speculated the lack of volume could be attributed to continued nervousness among investors about the retest scenario, the large backlog of locked-up stock related to recent IPOs, and a fear that better market conditions could unleash another round of initial public offerings.
Surprisingly, the strategist did not address what seemed to be the most obvious inhibitor to trading activity: the
Federal Reserve Open Market Committee's
meeting on May 16, with the
consumer price index
for April set for release the same day.
The idea that traders are waiting for the Fed is a "knee-jerk explanation" and an "excuse," he said in an interview late Friday.
Rather than a hesitation before the FOMC, Wien chalked up the lackluster trading to the supply/demand issues cited above, as well as a lack of conviction among institutional investors and a drying up of mutual fund inflows.
Finally, he said the sagging activity reflects a changed environment on Wall Street.
"Momentum investors had controlled the course of the market" until the selloff in April, the veteran strategist explained. Now, "the market is in the hands of the fundamentalists and they don't see prices yet where they're compelled to buy."
Wien balked when asked what specific levels would entice fundamental buyers, saying only "those are probably lower than where we are today" and predicting major stock proxies will break their April lows.
But Jeffery Warantz, equity strategist at
Salomon Smith Barney
, expressed the more bullish view of the M.I.A. volume.
"People aren't going to buy tech or interest-rate-sensitive stocks in front of the Fed meeting," Warantz said. "I don't know how much more you can read into" the lackluster volume.
Salomon Brothers remains bullish on the outlook for stocks six to 12 months out and retains its faith in established tech leaders such as Cisco, Intel, and
, the strategist said.
The good news for those looking for a resurgence in trading activity is there's only one trading day left before the FOMC meeting. The bad news is the debate over what the Fed will do at its June meeting and beyond will re-emerge about 10 minutes thereafter, suggesting the slow and sluggish trading activity could be with us for some time.
That's something most investors just haven't counted on.
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 welcomes your feedback at