Wall Street hard put to find the tinsel. Christmas sales appear fairly brisk , but business next year is in doubt
Johnny's apparently getting his pair of skates. Susie's getting her sled. Wall Street wants a year-end rally - but it's feeling dread. That is, whether it's in the true spirit of Christmas or not, the nation's cash registers are jingling their bells this month, supplying all the Johnnys and Susies of America with goods. That boosts retail sales and makes merchants happy this time of year.
That's what's happening at Bloomie's and Neiman's and Sears and K-mart and hundreds of other stores throughout the country.
But down at the lower end of Manhattan Island - and in corresponding financial districts throughout the nation - there's not exactly the same feeling of good cheer. Joining the grinch, Scrooge, and assorted other naysayers are more and more investors. Big Christmas sales are fine and good, they say, but what about beyond Christmas? How will the nation's businesses be doing then?
No one really knows, of course. But if the stock market is any sort of guide, there is growing apprehensiveness about how business will be doing in the new year. It's reflected in the Dow Jones industrial average, which has been acting sort of like Johnny trying to find his footing on ice without those skates he's wanted so.
The Dow closed Friday at 1,175.91, up 12.70 points for the week. That was the best performance in three weeks. But the Dow is still well below its election eve high of 1,244. Moreover, this is supposed to be the time that a ''year-end rally'' takes place, and that seems only a faint possibility at this juncture.
Investment advisers are not feeling too cheery.
At the Smith Barney, Harris Upham brokerage in New York, technical analyst Billcq Raftery'scq charts are showing a ''choppy and erratic'' pattern of stock performance.
''We see a definable downward bias,'' Mr. Raftery says. ''We see further risk in the market. With the (poor) performance of Union Carbide stock, and the semiconductor group coming under severe pressure, we think portfolio managers will just step aside.''
Although Smith Barney's long-term attitude remains bullish, Mr. Raftery says the market needs more of a ''washing out'' before a rally can begin. More selling would create more liquidity, which could then fuel the next up move.
Mr. Raftery invokes the old Wall Street truism about bulls having to become nonbelievers before a rally can begin in earnest. He also notes that no one industry group looks like a comer at this stage.
''People know about the consumer disinflationary area (the area that benefits from lower inflation), and the autos,'' he says. ''But there's no real prospect now'' - unlike the mid-70s, when chemicals, paper, and aerospace emerged from hard times to lead the market. Or 1978, when oil company stocks moved into the lead.
At the Delafield Harvey & Tabell brokerage in Princeton, N.J., Anthony W. Tabell, too, counsels caution. He does note that the market has a ''fair upward bias'' in December and sees ''underlying strength.'' But he detects problems ahead in 1985.
''You are going to be in the mature phase of a bull market,'' he says. ''It may become evident that the market has topped out. Though that is not a call we're ready to make at this stage, we think you should approach the market with caution. Deterioration is obvious.''
Mr. Tabell does not expect a major shift in market leadership and sees the consumer disinflationary stocks continuing to head a maturing bull market.
For those who try to figure the future economic backdrop and its effect on stock performance, the economic indicators are not yielding very clear signals.
Retail sales are hot. But that, as far as investors are concerned, is yesterday's news. The producer price index, which often foreshadows inflation-rate changes, jumped ahead in its latest (November) report by 0.5 percent - a modest rise, attributed to an upturn in meat prices, but one that could hurt that vaunted ''consumer disinflationary'' area.
Inventories of wholesalers, retailers, and manufacturers increased 0.8 percent in October - not too terribly much, especially considering the relatively lean inventories most businesses keep these days. But it was still evidence of slower sales. And industrial production was up 0.4 percent in November, a modest increase after two months of decline.
Writing to portfolio managers, Eric Miller of Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette sees the market's current problems as rooted in the lackluster performance that it has experienced throughout the year.
''Spirits are low as the year winds to a close,'' Mr. Miller says. ''And they're not buoyed much by the prospects for next year, because most expect the difficult market to continue.'' The gloom ''isn't really deep, at least not yet, nor are many entertaining dire market predictions. But a lot of investors are discouraged because they've tried hard and found that many of their trusted approaches and methods came up short.''
Miller says investors buy stocks only when they have a clear idea of what is going to happen with business activity and interest rates. At present, given uncertainty over tax policy, the deficit, and a host of other things, a conservative investment approach, balancing fixed-income and equity investments - and doing so with great discrimination - is best, he says.