After a year of bombings in Iraq and suicide attacks in Israel, investors have suddenly decided that geopolitics matter. Or maybe, after an almost yearlong rally that sent the Dow up 46% and the Nasdaq up 72%, investors are looking for excuses to sell. In explaining the market's slide recently, analysts have been blaming everything from the escalation of world violence to the upcoming election to the uncertain outlook for jobs to high energy prices. But has the landscape really changed that much since January, when the Nasdaq was roughly 11% above current levels? Security concerns were certainly just as prevalent two months ago. British Airways ( BAB) and Air France had canceled or delayed a number of flights in early January amid terrorism concerns, and the level of risk was said to be greater than at any time since Sept. 11. The government lowered the national threat level to "elevated" from "high" on Jan. 9, but not before stocks had marched higher. Meanwhile, bombings in Iraq were an everyday occurrence. On Jan. 9, a suicide bomber blew himself up outside a Shiite mosque, killing four and wounding many more. The day before a U.S. Blackhawk medevac helicopter was apparently shot down, killing all nine soldiers aboard. In Israel, a suicide bomber killed 10 people and himself in an attack on a bus in Jerusalem. A Gaza mother killed four Israelis in a suicide bombing and an Israeli raid in Gaza killed eight Palestinians. Energy prices also were soaring. By Jan. 20, Nymex crude oil was sitting at $36.22 a barrel, up 11% since the start of the year. The most recent data on the labor market also proved disappointing in January. Payrolls for December were said to have grown by just 1,000, well below expectations for a 148,000 gain.
Yet the mood in the stock market was so much brighter. By Jan. 26, the Dow touched 10,700 and a sentiment survey by the American Association of Individual Investors revealed that for every one bearish investor there were four bullish ones. If anything, things have actually gotten slightly better since January. Although job growth is still very poor, payrolls continued to grow in February, economic growth rates have been inching higher for this year, and earnings estimates have been on the rise for the first quarter. While investors could be more concerned about an attack on U.S. soil today, given the bombings in Madrid, and energy prices are a little higher today than they were back in January, Larry Wachtel, chief market analyst at Prudential Securities, has perhaps the best explanation for the market's recent descent. "What we are now witnessing is the orthodox 5%-to-10% pullback usually associated with bull market corrections," he said. "Of course, in an emotional climate, there is no downside precision. But it has been pretty clear that in order to rise, the market had to fall."