NEW YORK – If a picture is worth a thousand words, then the chart of the Nasdaq stock market, home to the world's top technology companies, tells a grizzly tale of investor fear and greed.
Two years after the market peaked on March 10, 2000 at 5,048.62, the boom times have become a dim memory -- faded to a point that investors are now finally starting to recover their nerve and buy again.
But the market's present state can't touch the mad buying of the rally that ended two years ago.
"Everybody owned Cisco and was making a killing," says Rick BenSignor, Morgan Stanley's technical strategist, referring to the once high-flying stock, a poster child of the tech-led stock buying frenzy.
"A cab driver would turn around and instead of asking where you wanted to go, he would ask if you could buy a stock like he did today and make money." Cisco, which fetched as high as $82 in March 2000, closed at $17.80 on Friday.
That marked the height of the tech-led stock market bubble. The party came to an end when the indexes topped in early 2000 then headed south wiping out billions of dollars in wealth.
"Now, it is a much more skeptical, balanced market. It's been an incredibly painful and dramatic shake-out," says Uri Landesman, portfolio manager at Arlington Capital Management. In those heady days, "as long as you could find a piece of paper with writing on it, you could sell an IPO."
AN END TO BEAR MARKET?
Wall Street's technical analysts. who follow chart patterns to define market moves, are now divided as to what lies next. Some say the market bear died in the autumn when stocks sank to three year lows after the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States. Others are fence-sitting or still in the bear camp.
BenSignor remembers those freewheeling times and the ensuing carnage on Wall Street very well. He rejoined Morgan Stanley after a brief hiatus three days before Nasdaq topped out at its March 2000 peak.
"From that point (in the late 1990s), it started taking on more of a parabolic angle of ascent compared to a very bullish but normal course (up)," he said, describing the trade action that Nasdaq was plotting. "It was almost ascending at 90 degrees."
Now, the once-mighty market stands as a shadow of its former self that in fact the "Naz", as the market is called in Wall Street slang, maybe a more befitting moniker. Even after rallying 2.6 percent on Friday to over 1,935, the Nasdaq Composite <.IXIC> stands at less than half of its peak level.
The bear market was interspersed by rallies but those so far proved fleeting, resulting in the classic tell-tale sign of a bear market -- a series of lower highs and lower lows.
But lately some Streeters argue Nasdaq, and other indexes, which have rebounded from a sell-off and strung together a rally, could be finally putting an end to the bear market.
"The market's strength in early March is seen as confirmation that last September's low was the final bottom," Ralph Acampora, senior technical analyst at Prudential Securities, told his clients this week.
Weeks ago, as the market sold-off from the mid-January peak, he was still expected a final low some time this year. Now, he says, the consolidation between November and February is seen as a successful retest of that September low and, "it now sets the stage for more meaningful upside progress."
But to prove the bullish case, skeptics counter that the indexes have a lot of leg work, and Nasdaq has first to climb the foothills before it can even get back close to the summit.
In technical lingo, the market gauges have to overtake key levels of "resistance", or areas where sellers have usually appeared in the past to offload stocks for a variety of reasons like booking profits, breaking even or cutting losses even.
This is no easy task. The Dow Jones industrial average <.DJI>, the gauge of 30 corporate icons, has led the latest advance but has now bumped into formidable resistance from 10,600 to 10,800. It ended Friday up a little, at 10,572.49.
Nasdaq carved out a bullish sign last week when it moved back above its 200-day moving average, a technically significant indicator that at the moment comes in at a little over 1,900. This gauge plots an index's intermediate-term trend by averaging closing levels of the past 200 sessions.
But the index needs to be convincingly above its January high at about 2,098 for the rally to gather momentum.
When the market sank in the autumn, it came back into its long-term up trend channel it had been in the 1990s when the bull run raged. That's why BenSignor said he correctly recommended investors buy stocks on Monday, Sept. 24, 2001.
"What the market essentially did was re-price itself by eliminating the entire move up in the later 1990s, back to the same slope it had since the lows of 1990s," he said
But like others, he is reluctant to call the bear gone.
INVERTED HEAD & SHOULDERS
One particularly very bullish technical formation that the chartgazers say may be developing on the Nasdaq chart is a so-called "inverted head and shoulders".
The "head" is the lows of September at about 1,387, left "shoulder" is the April 2001 low at 1,619 and the right "shoulder" could potentially be the February 2002 low at 1,696, if that level holds.
"It's too early to say," BenSignor adds. "If you believe that those lows have longer-term implications then the lows two weeks ago become more significant short-term lows and possibly form the right hand in an inverted head and shoulders."
On the downside, the concern would be going lower than the 1,696 low set in February. This could open the way for a retest of the September 21 lows, at 1,387.06 on Nasdaq, 8,062.34 on the Dow and 944.75 on the Standard & Poor's 500 <.SPX>.
Others lean even more toward the bearish case.
Bernie Schaeffer, a veteran options trader and chairman of Schaeffer Investment Research, says Nasdaq needs a clean break of its 40-week moving average which comes in at about 1,900, followed by a breach of the 2,100-point area.
But as long as Nasdaq languishes below its 40-month moving average, in the 2,650-point area, Schaeffer says he will not even consider the possibility that the bear is giving way to a new bull. Schaeffer uses the gauge to plot long-term trends.
"The ultimate proof would be around the 2,600 mark. It has the unique characteristic of being double the low and about half of the high, so it has a lot of technical significance," he said. "Also, the 40-month on Nasdaq is at 2,600 to 2,700."
The S&P's 40-month is at 1,300 points, Schaeffer adds.
While the Street is split over what's ahead, one point of agreement is that the Nasdaq's top is nowhere in sight.
If Nasdaq can post an annual gain of 10 to 15 percent for a number of years, it will get back to 5,000, said Landesman.
"But the swings will be more controlled because people remember hundreds of stocks gave up 90 to 100 percent of their value in a brief period of time," he said. "I find it hard to believe my generation is going to forget that experience."