Wall Street birders look for signs of spring
''Look! A Swell-chested, Greenback Volckerbird,'' a floor trader cries. The ticker board momentarily forgotten, a gaggle of Wall Street's finest is peering out the window.
They're straining for a glimpse of the financial equivalent of the robin, that portent of spring. With the economy cooling, more than a few investors hope this unflappable monetarist bird (Paul Volcker) will take interest rates south for the winter, if not longer.
The scene is not as absurd as one might suppose. ''We're moving from a nation of bird- watchers,'' commented Edgar W. Levin, a Gulf & Western senior vice-president, recently, ''to a nation of Fed-watchers.''
Well, this past week the vigilance of bird watchers-cum-analysts (or vice versa) was rewarded. The Federal Reserve Board did indeed chart a southern course for interest rates: It dropped the federal discount rate from 9 to 81/2 percent. The discount rate is what reserve banks charge on overnight loans to member financial institutions. While a drop in this rate alone has little immediate influence on other commercial loan rates, it shows the Fed's concern over keeping the economy from slipping into a recession.
Even before the Fed's actions, investors had halted a 57-point decline in the Dow Jones industrial average that followed Ronald Reagan's reelection. Early in the week, moderate stock buying pushed the Dow over the 1,200 mark, and lively day after Thanksgiving sent the Dow average to 1,220.30, closing the week up 32. 36 points.
Nonetheless, there was little good economic news to act on. The sole beacon amid gloomy numbers released: a moderate 0.4 percent rise in consumer prices, indicating continued low inflation. But concern that a recession may be in the offing, if not here already, was supported by:
* A 4.1 percent drop in October's new orders for durable goods - items expected to last more than three years.
* A downward adjustment in the third-quarter GNP figures, to just a 1.9 percent rise - not the 2.7 percent previously reported.
* A 10 percent fall in October housing starts to an annual rate of 1.5 million units, the lowest since December 1982.
And, finally, as if to confirm the earnings-slashing binge analysts have embarked on, after-tax profits of US corporations fell 7.3 percent in last quarter. The decline was blamed on slower consumer spending and an increase in imports.
In the face of such news, H. Alden Johnson remains remarkably unperturbed. ''This is a normal mid-course correction,'' says the president and chief equity strategist at Massachusetts Financial Services Company, Boston.
''Everything is falling into place for the stock market,'' Mr. Johnson says. ''Interest rates are down. We have a disinflationary environment. But investors are still worrying about the economic slowdown - which is a pause, and it's not going into a recession.''
Johnson recommends large multinationals as a stock play on a decline in the US dollar. And he likes financial stocks as well as fire and casualty insurance stocks, which are due for rate increases.
At Interstate Securities in Charlotte, N.C., Ricky Harrington doesn't bother with the debate over whence goeth the economy. He is ''90-percent technician,'' and his charts dictate a decidedly downward path for the stock market.
''Four or five weeks ago I thought the market would hold above 1,200 and perhaps reach 1,300 by year-end. But that became too much of a consensus opinion.'' Now he says, the market may plumb the ''low 1,100s'' in the next four to eight weeks.
While some Fed-watchers hope for a rally sparked by lower interest rates, there has been little positive correlation between the Dow's performance and the drop in rates. ''That's a negative,'' Mr. Harrington says. ''If the market doesn't respond to favorable developments in interest rates, then it's technically weak.''
On the other hand, says Eric Miller at Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette in New York, ''you could say the market would have been weaker if interest rates hadn't declined.''
Mr. Miller, DLJ's chief investment officer, notes, however, that except for electric utility, bank, financial, and home-building stocks, the aggregate market has not responded to falling interest rates.
So Miller's is looking for a turn in the economy to pull the Dow out of its limited trading range. ''I think by December you'll begin to see better trends in economic data - particularly in consumer buying.''
One shouldn't expect a broadly based rally in the market, he says. ''There will be lingering doubts about the sustainability of the recovery and lower interest rates, especially with no decisive action on the deficit likely until early '85 . . . . These deficit worries will impede price earnings multiples,'' he adds.
Miller believes it will be a merry retailer's Christmas. He's recommending purchases of specialty retailers such as Dayton-Hudson, Zayre, The Limited, and Associated Dry Goods. When pressed for other industry groups, he said: ''For the moment I don't see any clear choices. Much of the market seems fairly valued.'' Interest rates
Percent Prime rate 11.75 Discount rate 8.50 Federal funds 9.12 3-mo. Treasury bills 8.73 6-mo. Treasury bills 8.90 7-yr. Treasury notes 11.10 30-yr. Treasury bonds 11.32 Source: Bank of Boston