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Taking stock
Uncovering the real drivers of the marketís rise and fall
BY KRIS FRIESWICK

Observers are all too quick to blame the likes of Enron, WorldCom, September 11, and the war on Afghanistan for the roller-coaster ride that is the Dow Jones Industrial Average. The DJIA, an index of 30 "blue-chip" US stocks that some suggest is a barometer of the nationís economic health, has fallen more than 3000 points since it hit its peak in January 2000. This, in sophisticated economic terms, is bad. With this much volatility, institutional investors and private citizens with enough extra income to gamble in the market have been left with few investment strategies, save predicting the impact of current events and other factors on the marketís movements.

These events and factors include mounting corporate-accounting scandals, the precious words of wisdom falling (less frequently these days) from the mouth of Federal Reserve Board chair Alan Greenspan, and the not-so-precious ones tumbling from the lips of George W. (who, according to a recent unconfirmed report, told British prime minister Tony Blair that the problem with Franceís economy is that the French "have no word for entrepreneur").

But I have been watching the real forces that make the market jump and dive like a one-legged man in an ass-kicking contest. If I had any money to invest, which I donít, my system for predicting market movements would have yielded me riches far more vast than ... an extremely vast thing.

Take for instance, September 17, 2001, a day on which the DJIA had its greatest net point drop in history. While most investors were caught off-guard, and attributed the drop to yet another unpredictable aftershock of September 11, I saw the plunge coming a mile away. Who could have missed this profound confidence-rocker: producers for the Emmy Awards announced that day that there would be less political satire, edgy humor, and frivolity at the 2001 awards than in years past.

Less humor? How could there possibly be any less humor in the Emmy Awards? Did this mean that the producers of American television actually believed that the crap theyíve been serving up all these years has been funny, satirical, and edgy? Clearly, the level of delusion in Hollywood was far worse than anyone had anticipated, and this announcement simply confirmed that we could expect more of the same in years to come. On the heels of September 11, when a nation most needed something to laugh about, this was the last thing anyone wanted to hear. Result: 684.81-point plunge.

Fortunately, my prognosticative abilities work both ways. Consider the largest single point gain in history: the DJIA climbed 499.19 in one session on March 16, 2000. The cause? Some thought it was a logical bounce after a February plunge. But I know it was the result of a little-noticed news item that came out of a Texas paper that day. Apparently, Texas death-row inmate Ponchai Wilkerson surprised (the understatement of the century) prison officials when, during his execution, he spat out a small handcuff key.

This report is disturbing on so many levels that itís difficult to know where to start. But the bottom line is that despite the fact that Wilkerson had in his mouth the means to escape, to elude punishment for his atrocious crime, to make a mockery of the judicial and penal systems that some of us hold so dear, he failed abysmally (largely because when oneís hands are cuffed behind oneís back, it is nearly impossible to place a handcuff key into a handcuff without help ó which wasnít forthcoming on Wilkersonís fateful day). The ensuing sigh of relief that our institutions do work ó despite our own best efforts ó could be felt all the way to Wall Street.

To test my talent, Iíve selected some random events, the impact of which I predicted before the markets closed. To wit, the announcement in July that Jennifer Lopez had filed for divorce from her new husband, Cris Judd. I predicted this would have a deliriously positive effect on the market. Why? The bulk of the marketís movements can be attributed to a cadre of institutional investors (mostly men) who buy and sell large blocks of shares for mutual funds and other institutional stockholders. The announcement that J.Lo was back on the market appeared like a vision to these gentlemen, proof positive that there is, in fact, a God, and heís specifically concerned with their needs. Result: the DJIA rose 488.95 points.

But perhaps the most compelling evidence can be found on the day called by many "Black Monday." It was October 19, 1987, a day like any other, except that it saw the largest percentage loss in the DJIA history. There are many theories about why this event occurred. Some say it was the gloom surrounding Robert Borkís Supreme Court confirmation hearings, or the news that Nancy Reagan had cancer, or the shooting of mating dogs on an airport runway in Topeka, Kansas (authorities considered them a threat to the impending arrival of Air Force One). Perhaps it was the dismal atmosphere created by dramatic drops in the DJIA the previous week.

But I alone know the truth.

October 19, 1987, was my 24th birthday ó the day I realized I wasnít getting any prettier, skinnier, or smarter than I was at that very moment. A pall like a heavy, black curtain descended upon my world, and, apparently, everyone elseís, too. The rest, as they say, is market history.

Kris Frieswick can be reached at k.frieswick@verizon.net

Issue Date: August 15 - 22, 2002
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