The stock market has fallen on hard times in recent months, and common wisdom blames Wall Street's woes on Ronald Reagan -- the man investors helped elect because of his pro-business, pro-investment stance.
Reagan's election last November immediately ignited a surge of enthusiasm among investors. Within a few weeks of Reagan's victory, the Dow Jones Industrial Average inched above 1,000, a level it had not seen in four years. It fell back in early December, but by late January was back near the magical 1,000 area. After reaching 1,024.05 on April 27, however, the most prominent of the market barometers started to signal a stock market in retreat.
It was a slow decline. As recently as early June the Dow average was close to 1,000. At the end of July it was 952.34.
But in August, when President Reagan achieved his key victory -- passage of the tax cut bill that is the foundation of his supply-side economics -- the stock market began to tumble.
Last week the Dow average fell another 36 points and closed Friday at 836.19, its lowest level since May 21, 1980. Analysts say it could go lower still.
Bond prices have been hit hard as well and are at near-record lows, although there has been a slight improvement in recent days.
Administration and congressional critics blamed Wall Street for the adverse performance in the financial markets.
The president campaigned on a platform that promised tax cuts and other aids to stimulate savings and investment, eased regulation of business and a substantial reduction in federal spending. His program is supposed to reduce inflation by increasing production and easing the burden on taxpayers.
The president delivered substantially the program he campaigned on, the economic policies that Wall Street embraced in the fall. Suddenly, it seems, Wall Street has become the doubting apostle unwilling to take on faith that the Reagan program would work.
Although there have been leaders in the New York financial community who have long been skeptical of the Reagan program -- most notably Henry Kaufman, chief economist for the investment banking firm Salomon Brothers -- on balance, securities officials have backed the president, with a few reservations.
The decline in the stock market cannot be blamed on anyone but the millions of investors who, upon a closer second look at Reagan's programs, began to realize that the new economic theology offers no miracles, no "quick fixes," and, to boot, carries a certain degree of risk.
The tax cuts are automatic. Spending cuts must be approved by Congress each year. Investors worry that the time between today's tax cuts and the new production and investments those cuts are supposed to stimulate could be a period of substantial budget deficits, unless new spending cuts are achieved. Reagan has pared many social programs to the bone. He resists any substantial cuts in defense and has promised to keep Social Security intact.
Critics say that means that despite the administration's rhetoric, a $42.5 billion deficit in fiscal 1982 (which starts Oct. 1) probably is unachievable.
In pure economic terms, a $60 billion deficit would not be much different than a $40 billion deficit. But if investors believe there is a difference -- that bigger government demand for funds will keep interest rates high, squeeze out worthy borrowers and perhaps trigger a severe recession -- they will act accordingly.
"The problem the administration faces is that it waited too long to tell the people how long it is going to take to achieve its goals," said James Balog, senior executive vice president of the big brokerage firm Drexel Burnham Lambert Inc. "They're administration officials paying for that now in stock and bond prices. I am convinced, however, that given time, Reagonomics will work."
The gloom has not been restricted to the stock market. The bond market has been hit even harder. With interest rates near record levels despite a substantial slowdown in the rate of inflation, bond buyers have deserted the market. Even now, when interest rates seem to have started to subside, there is no rush to lock in high yields by buying 25 and 30-year bonds.
"Bond buyers are living in the shadow of total devastation. They've seen rates go down before, bet that they would continue to go down and bought bonds. Then those rates have soared again. The poeple who buy bonds just aren't willing to make any bets," said a top executive at a major Wall Street brokerage house.
The crisis in the stock and bond markets has brought acerbic criticism from administration officials and allies. Recently, Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker (R-Tenn.) accused Wall Street of conspiring to keep interest rates high and warned that Congress might impose credit controls, although Reagan has disavowed any intention of doing so.
The heat from Washington disturbs securities industry executives, who feel they are getting a bum rap. Millions of investors, not brokerage officials, set stock and bond prices, they point out.
Last week, the executive board of the Securities Industry Association, the trade association for brokers and investment bankers, wrote Reagan to make peace.
"We can assure you that the thrust of your economic program -- reduced federal spending, major tax reductions for business and individuals, business deregulation and slow but steady growth in the money supply -- enjoys overwhelming support in the stock brokerage and investment banking community," the trade association's 36-member board wrote.
"Just as it will take time for this program to achieve its goals, it also will take time for the millions of investors whose multiple concerns and perceptions determine stock and bond prices to recognize the fundamental changes in economic policy you have set in motion," they wrote.
In a cautious rejoinder to administration officials and congressional leaders who blame the industry for the market's problems, the executives reminded the president that "Wall Street does not control either stock prices or interest rates, and securities markets will continue to fluctuate, depending upon supply and demand factors and people's expectations of the future."
Whether the seeming pessimism among investors can be laid at the feet of the Reagan administration is debatable. Despite the protestations of fealty from the securities industry executives, most traders are happy with parts of Reagan's program and disenchanted with others.
They fear budget deficits and continued high interest rates. They are pleased with tax cuts designed to spur investment and savings, such as the cut in the capital gains taxes. They dislike personal income tax cuts, fearing that consumers will spend the money rather than save it, thus helping to generate a new round of general price increases just when it seemed inflation was beginning to abate.
Furthermore, there is concern that the new All Savers certificates, designed to put lower-cost funds into ailing savings and loan associations, will hurt the stock and bond markets. Kemp Fuller Jr., vice president of the brokerage firm Moseley, Hallgarten, Estabrook & Weeden Inc., said the new certificates "could contribute to disruptions in the traditional flow of funds into conventional investments such as stocks and bonds as investors rush to capitalize" on the opportunity to collect tax-free interest income from the special certificates, which can be bought only from banks and savings institutions.
Nonetheless, whether "Reaganomics" will work cannot be answered for several years and may never be answered if the administration and Federal Reserve have gone too far with stringency and trigger a severe recession. If unemployment should skyrocket suddenly, political considerations will impel a return to some form of stimulus. For the next several months, investors likely will sit back and examine the landscape.