Analysts who reined during Nasdaq’s surge influences fade

The Associated Press
Saturday March 10, 2001

NEW YORK — For a few hours this past week, Wall Street got a mild reminder of the euphoria that sent stocks roaring last year to some of their highest levels ever. 

Goldman Sachs chief investment strategist Abby Joseph Cohen issued a research note Wednesday advising clients to buy and predicting the Dow Jones industrials would hit 13,000 by year’s end. 

But the reaction was muted, an illustration of just how much has changed since this time a year ago, when the Nasdaq hit its all-time high of 5,048.62. Although stocks moved up somewhat, a string of earnings warnings and downgrades quickly took back control of the market. By Friday, blue chips and technology stocks had tumbled precipitously. 

“I’ve heard of Abby Cohen and I’ve seen her on TV, but I don’t really listen to her much,” said Kathleen Greer, a bank customer service representative in Chicago. She worries that some analysts may be promoting the same stocks their firms underwrite or want to do business with. “My investment club uses its own tools to analyze stocks.” 

The same Wall Street analysts who presided over the Nasdaq’s dramatic ascension are still around, but their influence has waned somewhat as the stocks they covered have fallen sharply. 

“The market gets into times of euphoria and depression. Right now, it’s hard for people to get excited,” said Kent Womack, a finance professor at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth. “I’m sure people are somewhat comforted to hear that she’s positive on the market, but there’s also the reality that earnings don’t look good and probably won’t another quarter from now.” 

The superstar strategists, including people like Cohen, Merrill Lynch’s Henry Blodget and Morgan Stanley’s Mary Meeker, can still be found on TV and in newspapers. But their influence has lessened as individual and institutional investors, scarred by weak earnings and the shuttering of dot-coms, have moved away from sectors  

that ignited many of these analysts’ careers. 

“It’s definitely quieted down,” said Robert B. Walsh, a financial adviser in Jersey City, N.J., who used to regularly field calls from clients interested in stocks they had seen touted on TV. “People still listen to that stuff, but they’ve lost a lot of wealth and don’t have the money to go back in.” 

Two unexpected earnings warnings from Intel and Yahoo! this past week were a reminder of how fundamentally attitudes and expectations have shifted on Wall Street. Caution, not euphoria, is the rule now. 

“Making money is hard again,” Blodget was quoted in the New York Post as telling a Merrill Lynch Internet Conference audience this week. 

Blodget, a Merrill Lynch analyst, rose to fame three years ago on a prediction that Amazon.com’s stock would double. Since then Amazon’s stock has fallen sharply and Pets.com, one of Blodget’s high-profile stock picks, has shuttered its doors. 

Rival Internet stock-picker Mary Meeker at Morgan Stanley Dean Witter has been quiet in recent months, but has no apologies for her bullish forecasts. 

Cohen, the Goldman Sachs strategist and perhaps the most senior and respected member of the group, was never a Nasdaq stock picker. Her forecast Wednesday, in fact, omitted the Nasdaq entirely. 

“We believe that attractive equity valuation has been restored and forecast year 2001 price levels of 1,650 and 13,000 for the S&P 500 and DJIA,” her note said, adding, “Opportunities are often the best when uncertainty is rampant.” 

With the market so volatile, it’s hard to know whether Wall Street’s less enthusiastic response to analysts is temporary or the beginning of a trend. 

Womack, the Tuck professor, isn’t sure, either. He also doesn’t believe it’s fair to blame analysts for the inflation or deflation of the Nasdaq bubble, as some have done. 

But he said good lessons can be learned from this. Forecasting what the overall market’s trajectory is tricky and hazardous. Investors need to look to more than analysts before making their portfolio decisions. 

“Many analysts wear multiple hats. One is to recommend their favorite stocks and the other is to get investment banking business done,” he said. “These two jobs conflict with each other. So we need to treat the advice we get from them like we would treat advice of someone selling a car or TV.” 

For the week, the Dow Jones industrial average rose 178.31, a 1.7 percent gain, to 10,644.62, despite tumbling 213.63 Friday. 

The Nasdaq composite index fell 64.85, or nearly 3.1 percent, to end the week at 2,052.78, a level not seen since December 1998. It lost 115.95 Friday. 

The Standard & Poor’s 500 ended the week off 0.76, a decline of nearly 0.1 percent. It finished at 1,233.42 after losing 31.32 on Friday. 

The Russell 2000 index, which tracks the performance of smaller company stocks, fell 3.23, or 0.7 percent, for the week after slipping 7.84 on Friday. It closed at 473.65. 

The Wilshire Associates Equity Index — which represents the combined market value of all New York Stock Exchange, American Stock Exchange and Nasdaq issues — ended the week at $11.331 trillion, off nearly $43 billion from the previous week. A year ago the index was nearly $11.374 trillion. 

End adv for weekend editions