The Dow Jones industrial average has now sunk too low to be calculated by computer. Instead, each stock exchange sends down an observer in a bathyscaph to take a daily reading.
Last month, the exchanges were still using bathyspheres, but early in March the cables attached to the bathyspheres were stretched to the limit. It became necessary to switch to freely moving submersibles.
By yesterday, the New York Stock Exchange bathyscaph was west of Guam and drifting southwestward toward the Marianas Trench, where the Pacific Ocean is more than 36,000 feet deep.
Market analysts consider this development of considerable significance. John J. Hedgemore of Lynch, Pinch and Bache told me yesterday, "Technically, the market is in either an over-sold or underbought condition, with a definite upswing in downside risk. This is a good opportunity for prudent investors to upgrade the quality of their portfoloios."
I took his word down in shorthand as rapidly as I could, then asked, "What would you consider a bad time for upgrading the quality of stocks in one's portfolio?"
My notes indicate that he responded, but the notes are cold now and I can't figure out what he said. Very likely it was something impressively profound.
Horace Churner of Hutton, Dutton, Button, Paine and Ache, put it this way: "Everybody has been on the sidelines for months. A few people who were slow in selling out are still in intensive care wards, but everybody else is back on the sidelines and completely out of the market."
"If everybody is out of stocks now, to whom did these people sell when they sold out?" I asked.
"To others," Churner snapped. "What a foolish question."
Finley Trout of Salmon Brothers said, "Over the long term, I took for a great deal of short-term fluctuation, especially if the shorts begin to run for cover or the longs begin to run for their lives." When I asked him whether I should buy or sell, he said, "Definitely."
Although these incisive insights from Wall Street's sharpest minds went right to the heart of the matter, none of these men had really told me whether this is a time to buy or sell. I was not yet ready to produce a scientific investment analysis for you.
I recalled that a city editor had once advised me, "Keep on asking the same dumb question until you get an answer you can understand. If it's clear enough for you to understand, you might be able to write it so that the reader can understand it, too."
So I called a friend who does well with investments, and I asked him point blank, "Has the stock market hit bottom yet? Is it time to start buying?"
He said, "I don't think so."
"When will prices be at rock bottom?" I asked.
He replied, "When people like you begin to say, 'It looks like stock prices are going down to nothing, so maybe I'd better dump my stocks now and salvage what I can.' When that happens, it will be a clear signal we've hit bottom. Let me know when you're ready to sell. That's when I want to buy."
Is he saying that intuition counts for more than charts, graphs, earnings, odd lots sales, insider trading, conventional wisdom or scientific analysis?
A message seems to be trying to get through, and my male intuition tells me it is this:
Before you act upon a deep-down gut feeling that it's time to sell, somebody else must get a deep-down gut feeling that he ought to buy what you're offering for sale.
Thereafter, one of you will probably learn to distrust gut feelings.
I wish Federal Reserve Board Chairman Paul A. Volcker would learn to get his cigar out of camera range before the news photographers snap his picture. Every time I see that luscious and obviously expensive cigar illustrating a story about the financial ruin that is about to overtake me, I get a subliminal message I don't care for. Q & A
The morning mail contains one other money question. Mrs. A. R. of Hyattsville wants to know, "How can we ordinary citizens let the Olympic Committee know we disapprove of the committee's lack of support of President Carter's request for a boycott of the Moscow games?"
We can do that by borrowing the Olympic Committee's own slogan: "America doesn't send athletes to the Olympics, Americans do." If Americans stop contributing their money, the Olympic Committee will get the message quickly.
P.S.: When you see an ad boasting that a certain company sells "the official Olympic buggy whip" or "the official Olympic vacuum sweeper," take pains to buy some other brand. Those "official" designations weren't won on merit; they were sold to the highest bidder. Every American is free to vote with his pocketbook.