Market Tests Investors' Nerves

As the stock market's losses piled up last year, brokerage executive Charles Schwab began appearing in television commercials urging individual investors to remain calm. But by early last week, he realized people aren't heeding his advice.

"You can start to see people get a sense of panic now," Schwab said in an interview last week. "You see it in the market, you (hear) it in conversation, you see it in the writings to the letters to the editor. For some investors, it's getting pretty desperate. Of course, that's the time you just got to hold your cool."

Remaining levelheaded is getting tougher for individual investors caught in the maelstrom of accounting scandals, terrorism fears and economic queasiness that shoved last week's stock market to its lowest levels in nearly four years.

Logic says the market should be reaching a bottom, that Monday should yield great deals for investors with extra cash and the desire to buy blue-chip stocks deeply discounted by the waves of selling that have washed over Wall Street.

But emotions might drive even more people out of the market as they ruminate over the losses reflected in their second-quarter investment statements and realize the damage got even worse during the last two weeks.

All of the stock market's bellwether indexes have been badly battered during the last two weeks.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average, the most famous index of all, got hit the hardest, dropping by 1,360 points, or 14.5 percent, to fall to 8,019. Meanwhile, the Standard & Poor's 500 index shed 141 points, or 14.3 percent, and the technology-driven Nasdaq composite index dropped by 129 points, or 8.9 percent.

The rapid descent, combined with substantial erosion that had already occurred since the stock market's March 2000 peak, is bound to cause a lot of soul search among investors, said Tom Lydon, president of Global Trend Investments in Newport Beach.

"There are going to be a lot of couples sitting across from each their dining room tables this weekend and one spouse is going to say to the other, 'That's it. We've had it. Let's get out of the market and take something off the table while we still can,"' he said.

This kind of behavior is known as "capitulation" -- a phrase used in the stock market to describe a time when exasperated investors throw up their hands and sell all their holdings regardless of the economic circumstances. This phenomenon is the polar opposite of the giddiness -- famously described by Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan as "irrational exuberance" -- that propels markets to staggering highs.

Historically, the moment of investor capitulation heralds the end of a bear market. That's the good news. The bad news is no one really recognizes the moment of capitulation until it's already occurred.

"I've been thinking the market had capitulated for the last three weeks, but it just keeps capitulating," said Richard Del Monte, an investment adviser in Danville. He said three more of his clients threw in the towel after Friday's sell-off, telling him to sell all their stocks.

Most money managers think this is a time savvy investors should be seeking out bargains. "You might see opportunities out there that you won't see again for years," Lydon said.

But don't tread into the market turbulence unless you have a cast-iron stomach because investment professionals warn the market might plummet even further in the next few days.

"To buy stocks now, you have to be like the people who traveled across the country during the Gold Rush of 1849," Del Monte said. "It takes a lot of courage."

Canan Korustan of Alamo is already on the prowl for bargains. During Friday's sell-off, she picked up stock in General Electric and discount retailer Target. If the market falls further Monday, she is eyeing investments in drug company Pfizer Inc. and perhaps a cable company.

By buying now, she hopes to offset some of her losses on past investments in high-tech companies. The value of her holdings in one-time high-fliers like BroadVision Inc. and Exodus Communications have fallen from $20,000 at the market's peak to $200 today.

Konustan, 46, is trying not to glance back as she forges ahead.

"I haven't even looked at my stock portfolio in the last three weeks because every time I do I just get kind of nervous and upset," she said. "I start thinking I was stupid for not getting out a long time ago."