Market rallies despite storm, expectations of slowdown

The Insider

Your Money

September 11, 2005|By BILL BARNHART

FREQUENTLY, economic data indicate that consumer confidence is slumping but consumers are spending heartily.

This statistical conundrum sometimes is likened to eating a bag of Oreo cookies when you're depressed about your weight.

Wall Street seems to be in such a state, as the stock market rallies in the wake of a historic natural disaster and the belated recognition among many George W. Bush loyalists of ineptitude and delusion in the White House.

Although stocks remain stuck in a narrow trading range, prices have advanced broadly since Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast.

Still, investors face a big risk in assuming anything about recent market behavior.

In terms of the fundamentals of equity investing, earnings and valuations, "there's no insight that I can bring to this," said Tobias Levkovich, chief equity strategist at Citigroup.

Much of the mystery centers on the condition of undersea gas and oil pipelines in the gulf, he said. "I can scuba dive, but I still wouldn't know what I was looking at. We didn't make any changes to the portfolio."

If you are an active investor, the best chance you ever have is climbing aboard a sustained market trend - up or down. The smart move now is to head for dry ground and wait, at least until all indicators using pre-Katrina data are published.

Katrina was big, but so far it hasn't been big enough to establish a new trend beyond this year's sideways mambo on Wall Street.

Nasdaq stocks are essentially unchanged for the year.

"There's much greater uncertainty ahead for the economy than there was before Katrina," said John Waterman, chief investment officer for Rittenhouse Asset Management Inc.

Most economists and market analysts, pre-Katrina, were expecting economic and corporate profit growth to slow. Nothing since Katrina has brightened that forecast.

"This risk of negative surprises [in quarterly financial reports] is rising," after two years of better-than-expected results, Waterman said. "We're in the eye of the storm. We've finished second-quarter reports and we haven't gotten into the earnings warning season for the third quarter."

Forget about the usual economic reports.

"This is going to turn the macroeconomic numbers into chaos," said George Greig, international equities manager at William Blair & Co. "Don't worry too much about the printed macro numbers, because they are not going to mean much" for a while, he said.

What should you watch?

Levkovich said he'll watch the Manpower Inc. surveys of employer hiring intentions. "Spending is a function of the number of paychecks," he said.

Greig said spending and investment by business likely will become a bigger theme than spending by consumers.

But the key issue for him is inflation. "We need to be sensitive about whether these high raw materials prices are going to leak into inflation," Greig said. "Watch out. That's a significant risk."

Greig added that investors should not assume the worst. New Orleans could emerge stronger, as Chicago did after the fire of 1871. "It's going to be built back better than it was," he said. "It was pretty antiquated and haphazard. We're going to end up with a better city and economy."

Bill Barnhart is a columnist at the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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