Market points to strength in consumer goods for '84 but not in capital outlays
News about the economy seems uniformly favorable. But if, as many economists and investors believe, the ups and downs of the stock market foreshadow the ups and downs of the economy, then the 1984 economy may look like this:
* Great for the makers and retailers of consumer products, and the investors who hold those stocks.
* Not so great for the builders of more complex gear such as computers, oil equipment, and machine parts needed to sustain industry in the future.
The Commerce Department last week reported that the nation's gross national product grew at a strong 7.9 percent annual rate in the third quarter. Most of the country's leading economists expect inflation to remain in the 5 percent range and interest rates to stay near their current level.
At the same time, however, a number of stock market analysts note increased apprehension by investors about the strength of technology and capital-goods issues. For weeks, while the market continued its 14-month-old uptrend, there has been growing divergence between the safe, expensive (some say ''dull'') stocks and the more glamorous, lower-capitalization stocks.
''It's like the generals advancing and the infantry staying behind,'' says E.F. Hutton analyst Newton D. Zinder. ''The prior rally has been narrowly based and the broad market has not been catching up.''
This divergence has been an underlying weakness in the market. When poor quarterly earnings were announced by Digital Equipment Corporation and American Telephone & Telegraph last week, the market tumbled. Even though it recovered toward the end of the week (the Dow Jones industrial average closed Friday at 1249.09, down 14.43 points for the week), confidence in high-tech stocks seemed severely shaken.
Projecting the current market movement into the future, analysts say they expect a flight of investment capital into relatively safer consumer-oriented issues. These would do well as the economy strengthened but would not be vulnerable to the sorts of problems high-tech has (excess valuation due to last year's buying spree and intense marketplace competition).
''We think it's a good idea to be more defensive,'' says Harry W. Laubscher, chief technical analyst at the Paine, Webber, Jackson & Curtis brokerage firm. ''The maturity of the bull market is a bit more along than many people realize.''
Mr. Laubscher says he expects the market's general movement between now and Thanksgiving to ''have a bias to the downside.'' It will be mid-December or later before the market rallies again, he says. Therefore blue chips in the areas of food, insurance, retail stores, and utility companies are becoming more popular.
Many of such big-capitalization consumer stocks are historically undervalued, says E.F. Hutton's Mr. Zinder. They haven't increased significantly in price since 1974. The ''hotshot, high-tech stocks,'' Zinder adds, were fast moving last year, but ''they can be fast-moving in both directions, as we're seeing now.''
William E. Raftery, a technical analyst at Smith Barney, Harris Upham, believes the ''earnings fiascos'' of Digital and AT&T - plus others that are anticipated - have brought about ''a healthy skepticism.'' Mr. Raftery says this happened none too soon: The bullishness of the Dow had just been confirmed by the record height of the Dow Jones transportation index when the bad news from Digital and AT&T sobered the investment community.
Raftery expects the market in the next few months to produce ''a do-nothing Dow,'' and he says 1984 should be a period of strength for the same consumer disinflationary stocks as his counterparts at Paine, Webber and E.F. Hutton expect.
Much of the interest in consumer stocks comes from a reading of buyer confidence. Despite high interest rates, they have been bolstered by the decrease in unemployment, low level of inflation, and overall altitude of the stock market. A recent University of Michigan survey noted consumer confidence at a 10-year high.
''The Christmas of 1983,'' notes David D. Hale, chief economist at Chicago's Kemper Financial Services, ''will be the first since 1980 not occurring against a background of recession.''
Because of high interest rates, however, market analysts continue to be pessimistic about capital-goods stocks. Although a classic economic recovery cycle should see capital spending kick in next year, there is concern that industries may not be able to finance improvements to plant and equipment. Mr. Zinder says simply: ''Capital spending is a laggard. In this recovery we won't have it.''
Paine Webber's Laubscher agrees that capital spending will be tough. But he notes that ''as time goes by, machinery simply wears out. People found that out with automobiles. Even with high interest rates you have to buy a new one after five or six years.''
Thus he believes the bull market will end in 1985 and expects capital spending to occur - but to be modest and later than usual. He recommends investing in aluminum, machinery, paper, and chemicals in moments when they have weakened on the market.