Is it over? After another day of heavy losses for stocks, dispirited investors -- who've watched the gains from Monday's rally fizzle all week -- wonder if they've seen the last days of the bull market. The negative catalysts du jour on Thursday were weak economic data, an SEC investigation of General Motors ( GM), and more uncertainty surrounding the Bush administration. The downdraft has now taken the major indices back to test five-month lows hit on Oct. 12 and 13. The Dow Jones Industrial Average finished down 115.03 points, or 1.11%, at 10,229.95. That leaves the index below its October closing low of 10,216, hit Oct 13. The Dow was pressured by GM, which slumped 6.8%, as well as declines in Johnson & Johnson ( JNJ) and Home Depot ( HD). The S&P 500 dropped 12.48 points, or 1.05%, to 1178.90. That's only two points about the broad index's Oct. 13 low close of 1176. Once again, energy shares took a beating, as a 75% jump in Exxon Mobil's ( XOM) earnings wasn't enough for the bulls. The Amex oil index finished down 2.3%, with Exxon Mobil losing 1.5% on the day. Crude oil prices, meanwhile, added 43 cents to $60.20 per barrel on the day. Tech stocks, which some hoped would lead the market after energy stepped aside, led to the downside. The Nasdaq Composite plunged 36.24 points, or 1.73%, to 2063.81. That's still a good way away from its Oct. 12 low of 2037. The tech-heavy index was weighed down by semiconductor issues. The Philadelphia semiconductor index dipped 2.7%, amid declines in shares of AMD ( AMD), Intel ( INTC) and Texas Instruments ( TXN) Breadth was horrendous, with declining issues topping advancing ones by nearly 3 to 1 on both the Nasdaq and the NYSE. The plunge that has led the major indices to five-month lows in the first part of October has created a lot of downward momentum that seems to be impossible to reverse, at least for now. Many investors, it seems, are more keen to sell into strength than to buy into weakness.
"This market's in a funk, putting a negative spin on everything. It seems difficult to overcome," says Donald Selkin, director of equity research at Joseph Stephens. "We've had one catalyst after another -- whether it was hitting oversold conditions, lower oil prices or earnings -- fail to drive us higher." Sentiment watchers, who'd predicted a bounce from what they saw as oversold territory two weeks ago, aren't convinced that a return to the earlier October lows will coax out buyers. Some are now getting neutral readings on their indicators. That's the case at the Merrill Lynch equity research team, which compiles six different investment sentiment indicators to come up with its own reading. Their indicator, which points to oversold conditions when it dips below -6, has returned to -4.6 this week from 7.6 last week. Among the key component indicators, the American Association of Individual Investors survey returned to neutral after signaling an oversold market through last week. As for Lowry's Investment Research, it notes that a plunge in its Buying Power Index to 10-year lows is "not typical of those found during normal correction in bull markets." For the hopeful, the only catalyst left seems to be seasonality and the hoped-for "year-end" rally. Jeffrey Saut, market strategist at Raymond James, notes that October weakness usually lasts about three weeks and "tends to bottom near the end of the month with an 'I think I'm going to be sick'-type of downside hour or two." "Whether it plays that way this time remains to be seen, but this week should resolve things," Saut wrote in a research note. Whether stocks bounce or slide further could well depend on what happens Friday upon the release of the preliminary reading of the third-quarter GDP. After a weaker-than-expected number for durable goods orders in September, Goldman Sachs chief economist Bill Dudley believes there is downside risk to his 3.5% forecast. According to a Reuters survey, economists on average expect the GDP to have risen 3.6% in the third quarter, from 3.2% in the second quarter. Investors also will be closely monitoring the GDP deflator, the inflation gauge in Friday's report. Wall Street economists on average expect the deflator to have risen 2.9% in the quarter, according to the Reuters survey.