What a wild, wild ride . . .

October 30, 1997|By Peter A. Jay

HAVRE DE GRACE -- Wall Street took a tumble. Some said it was a crash. Scared investors everywhere were selling out for cash. Hong Kong stocks were down the drain and Tokyo was worse. Brokers looked as petrified as kids who'd seen a hearse.

Even in the provinces, where folks aren't quick to panic, the mood in small investment clubs was pretty far from manic. Ranchers' wives and druggists, and men who repair clocks, all wondered if the time had come to dump their blue-chip stocks. Mabel, sell the Boeing, the Merck, the ATT; get rid of all our L.A. Times, our Coke and our GE.

Don't keep the Motorola, or even the Intel. Sell the slumping Toys R Us, and stocks which end in Bell. Abitibi? Let it go, along with Schlumberger, and NationsBank, and Unisys, and all that Astra A. Call our discount broker, and tell him every share which we now own has got to go -- even Tupperware.

Take the cash and bury it. Let the credit go. Don't even keep the IBM, or Grampa's Pepsico. Give up the Weyerhaeuser, and also Southwest Air; Goodrich, Gannett, Dow and Hertz, John Deere and Omnicare. The apocalypse is coming, and, in fact, it may be here. Don't even hold Anheuser-Busch. The time's long past for beer.

Technology looked shaky; Microsoft was down by six. NTC Healthcare firms were battered. Shell and Exxon took their licks. Shocked managers of pension funds looked on as assets shrank. Nike was in free fall, as was also Citibank. While worldwide experts promised confidence would be restored, hardware-store proprietors were bailing out of Ford.

In Washington, the Clinton crowd conferred, and counseled calm. At a White House prayer breakfast, after reading from a psalm, the President declared that he could see no cause for gloom. The very best economists, he said, have promised further boom. They think that what is happening is only a ''correction.'' (How nice it didn't happen before the last election.) Furthermore, he said, I believe it's axiomatic that the market never crashes when the Chief is Democratic.

His faithful servant Algore then expanded on that theme. The turmoil in the marketplace, he said, was just a scheme by wicked rich Republicans to pick the people's pockets, and steal their lifetime savings to spend on guns and rockets. Economic inequality, he added, he could cure, if people would resign themselves to simply being poor.

Prosperity, said Algore, don't you see, is self-defeating. When industry makes profits, we get global overheating. So liquidate your holdings, if you'd care for my advice. A market crash is Nature's way to save the Arctic ice. The environmental lesson here is absolutely plain. Take your money out of stocks, then give to my campaign.

More venerable observers have another point of view. They've seen the market crash before. To them, it's nothing new. They've watched the fall of many bulls, the rise of many bears. On ''Wall Street Week'' they've listened to the experts splitting hairs. (The experts, incidentally, never lose the slightest face when their glib cock-sure predictions turn out to be off-base.)

Veteran investors know the future's hard to guess. They do their best, and take their lumps when more turns into less. They might compare investing to a hike in rough terrain. Sometimes it takes your breath away. Sometimes there's sudden pain.

The market's like a mountain path through country no one knows. It offers both ecstatic highs and unexpected lows. It's risky, too, and some of those who try it will not make it. But traveling it is optional. No one's made to take it.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

Pub Date: 10/30/97

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