How can anyone resist taking a flyer in the stock market? Just look at what's happening. In the face of the worst kind of news -- record interest rates, spiraling inflation, abominably low consumer confidence and a sliding economy -- the stock market simply refuses to go down. In fact, last week the Dow Jones Industrial average (at 884) was hovering right around its high of the year, up sharply from 1978's close of about 805. No wonder, then, it's so hard to say no to that hard-sell broker of yours when he comes calling with that special stock that just can't miss. After all, he reasons, if the market is doing so well when things are this bad, just imagine the possibilities when things get better. It's an easy argument to buy.
Well, if you're the impressionable type and you're about to take a fling in the market, a word of warning, folks: Don Trott, one of this year's hottest market callers, says in no uncertain terms that it's too late now for an investor to buy any more stocks in 1979 (save for special situations as corporate takeovers, an earnings explosion or a big oil discovery). His reasoning: A sharp market decline is on the way.
Trott, 44, is the balding, chain-smoking research chief of A. G. Becker, a leading brokerage firm. He has been uncanny, calling within a couple of percentage points of each of the five major up and down swings in equity prices this year. So on that score alone, his views -- which currently are being dispensed to leading institutional investors -- are certainly worth airing.
Trott, by the way, doesn't think the market is going to pot right away. Last June, with the DJI around 830, Trott fired off a report to Becker clients titled Major Rally in the Making. At the time, he predicted that the DJI would rise to the 920-940 level by the end of September. And he's sticking to that forecast, asserting: "The bull is still charging, but he is getting close to the final post."
But then, he sees a repeat performance -- though over a longer period -- of last year's rapid market blowoff in which the DJI tumbled nearly 140 points -- more than 15 percent -- between late September and early October.
Trott's unhappy scenario calls for the DJI to fall from its projected 920-940 peak to about the 830 level by the end of November and to decline further by March to about 780. In total, Trott is talking about a decline between 15 percent and 16 percent.
Trott offers several reasons for his thinking. For starters, he points out that the traditional money manager has looked like a bum over the past several years. Come October, and this same money manager will be happily sitting with paper profits for the year of about 15 percent to 30 percent, Trott says. The money manager will recall that last year he was greedy, that the October '78 selloff washed away most of his profits and he'll begin getting scared. "Since he doesn't want to look like a bum again and now has the opportunity to lock in a good year, he'll begin to nail down profits," predicted Trott. "And as more and more money managers join in -- which they will -- we could see a bit of a panic on the sell side."
Another market depressant will be the slashing of earnings estimates by many Wall Street analysts, Trott said. Analysts will contend that although other companies may suffer in the coming recession, the ones they follow will show earnings gains next year of 10 percent or so. But Trott believes they're in for a rude awakening. In October, most corporate managements will be budgeting their 1980 figures. And Trott believes many will be far less optimistic than Wall Street. Once the analysts get wind of this, they will begin scaling down their own 1980 projections. And this widespread downgrading of earnings should accelerate equities sales, Trott predicted.
The stock market's ongoing strength suggests that Wall Street is looking through the economic slowdown that everybody is talking about to a recovery in 1980. But Trott doesn't believe anyone can define the current slowdown's depth, breadth (the number of segments of the economy it will embrace) and longevity. He said the lack of a clear concensus is likely to cause confusion in the marketplace. And this, in turn, will raise serious questions about Wall Street's supposed ability to look into 1980 and come up with a clear picture of both the economy and the trends in interest rates. "Once it becomes obvious that no one has a clear vision, you'll have growing debate, growing uncertainty and increased selling of stocks," Trott said.
The Becker research boss also observes that part of the recent rally can be attributed to the appointment of Paul Volcker as chairman of the Federal Reserve Board. But he discounts the validity of this approach. "Whether it be the appointment of Arthur Burs or Bill Miller, the immediate reaction from the press, government officials and the business community invariably is that "we have a new Moses, a messiah who will shortly lead our problem-plagued economy to a new promised land," Trott asserted. "But the truth is that position itself is somewhat impotent . . . that the Fed chairmanship has been incapable of providing any really effective economic leadership since the reign of Mariner Eccles back in the '30s. And therefore, it's only a matter of time before the mystique surrounding Volcker wears thin."
Aside from running Becker's research department, Trott has a reputation in Wall Street of frequently being a hot stock picker. His '79 performance tends to substantiate this. For example, he recommended Texas Oil & Gas at 25 (recently 45 1/2), Xtra at 17 (now 25 1/2,) Collins Foods at 10 (now 16), Kaiser Cement at 22 (recently 28) and Bangor Punta at 19 (now 26 3/4).
Trott says he has a profit in his own personal trading account from realized and unrealized gains of about $50,000 thus far this year. Needless to say, Trott also has had his losers, such as Ponderosa Systems and Sea Containers, but he says these have been few in number.
Considering his track record, I asked Trott to name his 10 favorite stocks. Here they are (with recent prices in parentheses and the letter "x" denoting securities that he personally owns:
Cessna (22 1/4) x, Combusion Engineering (50 1/2), Raytheon (56 3/4), Bangor Punta (26 3/4) x, Coastal States Gas (28 3/4) x, Xtra (25 1/2) x, Pittston (24 1/4), Ponderosa (19 1/2) x, Lone Star Industries (24 3/4) and United Technologies (42 3/4) x.
Trott thinks new purchase of all of these 10 securities should be avoided until the market decline he envisions gets under way. "I'd take beginning positions in November or December and increase them on any further weakness," he said. He believes each of the 10 equities offers an average potential gain of about 25 percent over the next six months.
Now you know what one currently hot market player thinks. But Trott, as good as he is, shouldn't be construed to be the summit of wisdom. Trott himself would be the first to admit that, and I can well recall a noteworthy comment he made the last time I interviewed him, in November 1977:
"I'd hate to tell you about all the times I've had my teeth kicked in."