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March Showers, Wall Street Dour as Rate Worries Grow


Dig out the umbrellas.

Wall Street is bracing for spring squalls after last Thursday's gully washer.

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The Dow Jones industrial average fell 140 points Thursday on concerns that interest rates were due for a second increase.

Despite Thursday's plunge, the Dow lost only 64. for the week, due largely to a 100 point rally last Monday.

"Worries about a new round of rate increases are keeping investors on the edge," says Gene Jay Seagle, president of Tactics & Technics, a financial consulting firm in Weston, Conn.

The economy looks increasingly stronger, a prospect that brought one rate increase last Tuesday and could trigger another to hold back inflation.

This week, several reports could either soothe or serrate investor sensitivities.

Personal income and spending figures for February are due today; tomorrow, a report on US manufacturing; and Friday, unemployment statistics for March.

If they suggest a stronger US economy, the markets could take another soaking.

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It was such inflationary concerns that brought losses to 28 of the 30 stocks on the Dow last week. Among broader markets, the Nasdaq composite index fell 19.57 points Thursday (US financial markets were closed Friday for Good Friday). The Standard & Poor's 500 index plummeted 16.62.

The market "sure walks, growls, and has claws like a bear," says James Stack, editor of InvesTech, a financial newsletter.

He says Thursday's downturn was a "disaster" for the bulls, still predicting continued gains.

The drop followed a surge in bond yields. The 30-year Treasury bond rate crossed the crucial 7 percent barrier Thursday, jumping to 7.08 percent.

Higher bond yields generally hurt the stock market, as investors switch from stocks to high paying bonds.

On Friday, the government said the economy grew by 3.8 percent in the fourth quarter of 1996, well above the 2.1 percent gain for the third quarter. Some analysts peg current growth at 3.5 to 4 percent, faster than the Fed's target of 2 to 2.5 percent.

But not every analyst has turned Chicken Little.

Edward Nicoski at Piper, Jaffray Inc., blames some of Thursday's loss on "window dressing," the portfolio adjustments made at the end of each quarter.

William Lefevre, at investment firm Ehrenkrantz King Nussbaum, says the market was overreacting. He notes that first-quarter earnings reports, due soon, "ought to be pretty good" without showing an inflation surge.

So the results may help move stocks higher again.

Seagle agrees. "There could be a (stock market) correction of 10 percent or so this year, but the underlying fundamentals remain in place for continued gains."

He points to low inflation, well below 3 percent, high consumer confidence, and continued gains in mutual fund purchases, although at a slower pace than earlier in the year.

One analyst sees potential for solid moves, up or down.

For February and March, the broad S&P 500 index looks flat, while the Nasdaq index is off about 10 percent.

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