I was fairly sure a couple of weeks ago that the market was putting in a bottom. The Standard & Poor’s 500 Index told me so.
I was so confident that a bottom was forming that I even commissioned a graphic showing why. Now, I’m worried about how far much farther the market could fall. The S&P 500 tells me so.
Here’s why.
My confidence was built on how the S&P 500 behaved after dropping for no more than a minute on Oct. 10 to 839.80. That was the start of a wild day of trading.
The S&P approached 839.80 one more time on Oct. 10, and, between then and Nov. 12, the market tested that low four times, bouncing up each time.
Technical analysts call repeated bounces off a low level the establishment of a support level, which means that the mere act of approaching that level generates new buying. (There are, of course, millions of ways to identify a market bottom — which is to say, a market bottom shows up when it shows up. Check this set of criteria.)
I, for one, was hoping that support seemed to be forming between 840 and 850 on the S&P. If it kept holding at roughly those levels, then confidence would start to build among investors and, in time, confidence would beget buying. I wasn’t alone in watching the market trend after Oct. 10. Check this post on Seeking Alpha. USA Today noted the chatter as well.
I was under no illusions that the formation of a bottom meant stocks would take off again. If all went well, I thought the market would muddle along for, say, six to nine months. And, once the economy started to show real signs of recovery, then stocks might move slowly higher. That’s what happened after bear markets in 1973-74, 1981-82 and 1987. After the dot-com bust and the after-effect of the Sept. 2001 terror attacks, the bottom came in October 2002, followed by a major test in March 2003.
Alas, my hopes were shattered quickly.
On Nov. 13, the S&P dropped to 818.91, which was bad but not horrible.
On Wednesday, the support gave way. The S&P 500 closed at 806.58, just above its low on the day at 806.18.
Thursday, the market just seemed to fall apart. The S&P 500 fell to 752.44, which was below its closing and intraday lows in 2002, in the aftermath of the dot-com bust and the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. The index is now down 52% from its October 2007 peak — the largest percentage decline for the index since it fell 82.4% between March 1930 and June 1932.
Wednesday’s was so ugly a fall that Barry Ritholtz, who writes the Big Picture blog, suggested the S&P 500 could drop to, say, 681 before new support formed.
That level is basically where the trend line of the S&P since it peaked in October 2007 intersects with the long-term support line since 1984. That would translate into Dow Jones Industrial Average falling to 7,100 or lower.
“There are deeper levels, but it’s too ugly to write now,” he added.
Thursday, Ritholtz wrote simply “Ouch!”
These are scary times, really scary times.
What happened? Markets don’t operate independently of reality.
Here are the problems.
Bank stocks tanked. Here it looks like Treasury boss Hank Paulson created another problem. He said on Tuesday that the Treasury Department had decided that buying up bad assets from financial institutions was a bad idea — even though he’d gone to Congress and begged for $700 billion to do just that.
“The sense that policymakers are struggling to get ahead of the markets’ woes, and have frequently switched course or backtracked on earlier declarations about what needed to be done, has damaged investor confidence and created even more jitters in the markets,” Jane Sasseen wrote on BusinessWeek.com.
She’s being polite. So far this week, Citigroup has lost 51% of its value. JPMorgan Chase is down 32%.
The decision of Paulson and Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke to let Lehman Bros. fail in September dried up credit sources for everyone and everything: from General Motors to the young couple looking to take out a mortgage.
Tech stocks have slumped. Concerns have deepened in recent weeks as concerns deepened that business spending on technology will slump. Intel has fallen 8.2% this week; Microsoft is down 12.6%.
Oil and commodity prices are a problem. Slowly, the markets have realized that this will be no ordinary recession. So commodity prices — and related stocks — are crumbling. Crude oil fell below $50 for the first time since 2005 and is down 66% from its peaks in July.
Commercial real estate is becoming increasingly stressed. Real estate is throwing us another sucker punch. With retail chains like Linens ‘N Things going out of business and cuts coming from other retailers, retail real estate is sagging. General Growth Properties, the nation’s second-largest mall operator, is in such trouble that it has hired bankruptcy counsel. Just in case.
A ton of office space will come on the market in New York, Chicago, Seattle and elsewhere following the collapse of Washington Mutual, Bear Stearns and Lehman Bros. and huge layoffs coming from Citigroup and others.
So, when will a bottom show up?
I offer up Carter Worth’s list to watch. Worth is the chief market technician at Oppenheimer Asset Management. He and others at Oppenheimer were beginning to think after Oct. 10 that a bottom might well be forming. He has enough visibility that a number of people will pay attention to him.
He also wondered which stocks would signal if he was right — or wrong. He crunched some numbers and, on Nov. 10, came up with a list of 26 stocks that he believed could be used as a “control mechanism” to signal the market’s direction. The idea was that it takes a lot of buying pressure to move a stock to a new high and an equal amount of selling pressure to move a stock to a new low.
The group included Citigroup, Bank of America, Internet retailer Amazon.com, search giant Google, chip maker Intel, leather-good producer Coach, and railroad CSX.
Sadly, the list pretty quickly offered a pretty strong signal of what to expect. By Nov. 14, the group was down an average 11.9% from Nov. 7. By Thursday, the declines had widened to an average 29.8%. The best performer of the group, Polycom, was down 13.6%. The worst was Citigroup down nearly 60.2%. One blogger wrote Thursday that Worth’s call was “way to soon.
The S&P 500 dropped 6.2% between Nov. 7 and Nov. 14 and finished on Thursday down 19.2% from Nov. 7.
Let’s hope the index can find a bottom soon. Or things, which are scary enough, could get really scary.

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