Those of you who watched college sports last weekend know that one of the most exciting plays in football is a reverse. In a classic example, it happens when the offensive team makes the defense think it is running left, but out of the blue, a runner crosses behind the quarterback, takes the ball and streaks in the opposite direction. The stock market has its reversal plays, too, and they are among the most rare and dramatic of technical patterns -- as we saw in July and October to the upside, and might soon see again this month to the downside. An "outside reversal day" occurs when the high point in the trading of an equity or a broad index exceeds the previous day's high and the low exceeds the previous day's low, and the close is at the bottom or top of the range. Thus, stock charts in which each day's high, low and close prices are drawn in the shape of a vertical bar show that the reversal day's action extends above and below the prior day's action, which is why technical traders call them "outside" bars. If the stock or index was trending down during the weeks prior to the outside bar, then an outside reversal bar that closes at or near the top of the day is considered very bullish. It means that sellers gave it their best shot that day, but were swamped by buying pressure and laid down their arms. Likewise, if the stock or index was trending up during the prior weeks, an outside reversal bar that closes near the bottom of the day is considered very bearish. It means that buyers gave stocks a final hard push, but were overwhelmed by selling pressure.
These patterns occur so infrequently and work so persistently that many pros say they will trade them on blind faith. If you look at recent history, you can see why: An outside reversal day on July 24 this year marked the end of the midsummer collapse in the Dow Jones Industrial Average. On July 23, the Dow industrials closed at 7702 after hitting a low of 7591 and a high of 8008. The next day, the Dow industrials closed at 8191 after hitting a low for the day at 7490 and a high of 8243. There was a 701-point difference between the low of July 24 and the close -- a fantastic outside reversal that launched a massive rally into the end of August. The next outside reversal day for any index occurred Oct. 10 to mark the reversal from the bear-market low in the Nasdaq Composite toward the recent rally. On the Nasdaq, the low on Oct. 10 was 1108, the high was 1166 and the close was 1163. That was an outside reversal to Oct. 9, when the high was 1136, the low was 1112 and the close was 1114. The tech-heavy index never looked back from that reversal bar, advancing 400 points in a month and a half. In either of these cases -- and there are many more examples with individual stocks -- big bets in the opposite direction of the trend were the correct trade in the days following the big one-day reversal. Will Bears Regain Control? Now, fast-forward to the first week of December, and you can see why active traders were glued to their screens on the first business day of the month as a wild session unfolded. Every day since the early October turnaround, price action in each session was contained within the price action of the prior day. But on Dec. 2, the big indexes reached much higher levels than those of Nov. 29, when positive news out of Wal-Mart Stores ( WMT) drove prices; the indexes promptly plunged to levels much lower than those of Nov. 28, when a poor economic report dampened trading.
This action set up the potential for one of those uncommon one-day reversal bars. To avoid that outcome, bulls needed to push the Dow Jones industrials above 8900 or so and the S&P 500 Index to around 940, leaving the closes in the middle or upper half of the day's trading. In that event, it would look like just another day of trading: a down day, perhaps, but nothing earthshaking. Bulls and bears fought a pitched battle, but enough buyers emerged by the end of the day to blur observers' view of a picture-perfect outside reversal day. The S&P and Dow traded off, but avoided the worst sort of reversal bar -- one that closes at the day's low. Is that the end of the game? Not by a long shot, for bears may now be emboldened in their quest to sweep the opposite way of the recent trend. If you want to get on the inside of this outside action over the rest of the week, keep an eye on this week's closing levels; outside reversal weeks are considered even more prescient of future action than reversal days. We already know that Monday's open marked a high that was higher than the previous week's high for the three major indexes. If any or all of the indexes close below their lows of last week (8634 for the Dow, 912 for the S&P 500 and 1441 for the Nasdaq Composite), significantly lower prices could be in store for the remainder of the year. Richard Russell: Still a Skeptic Speaking of reversals, I spent an intriguing hour last week talking with Richard Russell, the granddaddy of newsletter publishers. Now 78, considered a saint by his many allies and a crackpot by foes, he has written about stocks continuously since 1958 in the Dow Theory Letters and has numerous coups to his credit, including an outrageous and accurate forecast of a new bull market in his inaugural year and a famous call of the end of the 1973-1974 bear market in December 1974.
Dow Theory, invented in a series of editorials by the founding editor of The Wall Street Journal in the early part of the 20th century, essentially suggests that bear markets end and bull markets begin when extreme pessimism produces extreme values in the shares of the nation's largest companies. The foundation for much of what is now known as technical analysis, the theory also suggests that advances or declines by the 30 stocks in the Dow Jones Industrial Average are legitimate only if confirmed by advances or declines by the 20 stocks in the Dow Jones Transportation Average. The idea is that the industrial companies make things and the transportation companies deliver them. If they aren't in sync, something's wrong. And right now, in the microclimate of December 2002, he thinks sluggish action from Nov. 6 to present by the transports are a "nonconfirmation" of the recent surge by the industrials. Pan out to the bigger picture and Russell, a bombardier in the Army Air Corps during the Italian campaign of World War II, says he believes the market today is every bit as risky as it was in 1996. That year, he told subscribers -- way too early, as it turned out -- that he was pulling out of stocks. From that point through 2000, he said, the market broke every rule on the upside as it catapulted to extreme heights, and is now in the process of breaking every rule on the downside. He said he would remain a skeptic until he can see the public "turn dead bearish and make values appear in stocks." That will occur, he believes, when the average price-to-earnings multiple of Dow stocks sinks to seven, the average dividend yield rises to 6% and friends call him nuts for turning bullish. He won't offer a precise time or price target for that moment, but notes that the 1921 bull market started at Dow 63 and ended in 1929 when the Dow hit 381. Three years later, after a crash and economic depression, the Dow had plunged to 41. If the same scenario were to play out today, he says, the Dow could sink beneath the 577 level at which the bull market began, in his view, in 1974. Most bear markets last a third as long as bull markets, he says, so if you measure the age of the bull at around 25 years, then the bear could last eight years -- or until 2008 or so.
The catalyst? "You'd have to have China become an almost unbeatable world economic and military power, exporting deflation and pushing down the economies of the West," he said. Sounds impossible to me, but I suppose stranger things have happened. After all, if outside reversal days and weeks have value, perhaps we should take note that January 2000 was a bearish outside reversal month that has not yet been itself reversed by a bullish outsider cousin. Fine Print To read more about Dow Theory, visit
Russell's Web site . In particular, read the free historical essay on the concept here .