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March 9, 2001

A year ago, when the Nasdaq market peaked on March 10, your devoted scribes at the Chicago Tribune offered the following observations:

"The shining performance of the Nasdaq has provided the only real light for investors this year.

"The market is constantly expanding with new stocks that tap into investor obsession with anything concerning computers, telecommunications, biotechnology and, of course, the Internet--all of which have come to symbolize the `new economy.'

"Meanwhile, most other stocks have been stuck in a narrow range, hemmed in by worries about inflation and higher interest rates. Blue-chip stocks have been especially moribund."

The Nasdaq composite index first closed above 5000 one year ago and hit its record closing high, 5048.62, on March 10, 2000. What a difference a year makes.

Market analysts say there has never been such a dramatic reversal over two years as the one between 1999 and 2000.

In 1999 through mid-March 2000, so-called growth stocks, namely the technology sector, rallied sharply at the expense of value stocks, principally traditional manufacturers and utilities. The Nasdaq composite rose 111 percent in the year before it peaked.

When the worm turned last March, it did so with a vengeance. A historic bear market in tech stocks, represented by the Nasdaq index, ensued, accompanied by extraordinary gains in such traditional sectors as energy and utilities.

"Usually, buying in the rear-view mirror is a bad strategy," said William Lowery of the Chicago-based pension consultant Performance Analytics. "In 1999, it was a terrible strategy."

So far this year, the pattern established after March 2000 appears to be holding. Nasdaq tech stocks continue to search for a bottom. Utility stocks and energy stocks--especially companies associated with natural gas production--are performing well.

The Nasdaq composite index has fallen 12 percent since the end of last year. The Dow Jones industrial average is flat.

A year ago, "we had a group [tech stocks] that had been going straight up," said market watcher Alfred Goldman at A.G. Edwards in St. Louis. "People would be embarrassed if they didn't own tech companies."

Meanwhile, broad market indexes hung in a narrow, boring trading range over the last two years, with offsetting rallies and pullbacks in various sectors, he said.

But for the tech-weighted Nasdaq composite, it was all or nothing, Goldman said. Rising energy prices, the unusually cold winter and the election anxiety snapped the most vulnerable part of the stock market--technology, he said.

Value stocks--generally those with low prices relative to their earnings--have held up better than growth stocks, higher-priced stocks relative to earnings. Lowery says that once value stocks turn up versus growth stocks, the trend typically lasts for two years.

But Goldman says that among the dominant tech stocks, "Prices are the most attractive I've seen in 10 years."

Thursday's action: Tech stocks stumbled in moderate trading under the weight of a downbeat outlook by Internet portal Yahoo!

After the close of the regular Nasdaq session, chipmaker Intel warned of still more disappointments in sales in the current quarter, but predicted a turnaround in the second half of the year.

Meanwhile, blue chips posted their fifth consecutive gain on the Dow Jones industrial average.

Traders' attention focused on the scheduled Friday morning release of unemployment and job growth data for February, a month for which economists have a particularly bad track record predicting the outcome.

Some analysts believe that an unexpectedly weak report from the Labor Department could prompt an emergency cut in short-term interest rates Friday by the Federal Reserve.

Financial wire service surveys of economists reflect the traditional difficulty of predicting February employment data.

Economists surveyed by Reuters on average expect the economy produced 62,000 new jobs in February, down from 268,000 in January, with the unemployment rate expected to be 4.2 percent, equal to the January number.

BridgeNews pegs the consensus view at 50,000 new jobs and a higher unemployment rate, 4.3 percent.

"Economists' historical forecast error in estimating February payroll changes has not been quite as bad as the meteorological error with respect to the `Blizzard of the Century,' but we are not far behind," wrote Joe Liro of Stone & McCarthy Research Associates in Princeton, N.J.

The Dow Jones industrial average gained 128.65 points, or 1.2 percent, to 10,858.25, on New York Stock Exchange volume of 1.12 billion shares. The Dow has advanced 408 points, or nearly 4 percent, in the last five sessions.

In Thursday's trading, winning stocks outnumbered losers 8-7.

The Nasdaq composite index fell 55.19, or 2.5 percent, to 2168.73, on volume of 1.75 billion shares. Losers topped winners 3-2.

Yahoo!, which also announced late Wednesday that its chief executive officer was resigning, fell $3.25, or 15 percent, to $17.69.

Treasury stocks advanced, reflecting overseas buying and optimism that the Fed will cut interest rates this month.

Local news: Marketing and promotions developer Ha-Lo Industries, Niles, was dropped from the Standard & Poor's SmallCap 600 index. Shares slumped 43 cents, or nearly 25 percent, to $1.30.

Chicago-based information technology consultant Inforte said after the close of regular trading that earnings and sales for the first quarter would be at the low end of analyst estimates. Shares fell 22 cents, to $8.37.


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