Forget about inflation, sagging corporate profits and sky-high oil prices. The thing the stock market hates most is uncertainty.
And that's exactly what Wall Street got heaps of on Thursday and what will depress stock markets around the globe on Friday, market watchers said. The reason: The cliffhanger U.S. presidential race between Republican Texas Governor George W. Bush and Democratic Vice President Al Gore remains undecided.
"The market hates uncertainty and we're looking at an unprecedented amount," said Phil Orlando, chief investment officer at Value Line Asset Management, who oversees $7 billion in assets. "I would anticipate more weakness in the market (on Friday) given the uncertainty in the political situation."
A final election outcome will likely spur a rally, and investors are betting a slowing U.S. economy will keep the Federal Reserve from raising interest rates at its meeting on Wednesday. That should help stocks next week, investors said.
But Friday looks grim, most market watchers said.
"Until there's news on the end of this election, I think there's going to be a pall hanging over the market," said Jeffrey Davis, chief investment officer at State Street Global Advisors.
Gore decided to fight the election results in the key state of Florida, where an initial count showed Bush had won the state but by a margin so narrow that an automatic recall was triggered. The outcome in Florida is crucial because the state's electoral votes proved decisive in the extremely tight U.S. presidential election.
Florida election officials said late Thursday they are still awaiting final election results from 14 counties, which could take as long as next Tuesday. Bush currently leads the key U.S. state by a slim 1,784 votes.
The Gore campaign, claiming voting irregularities in a state where Bush's brother is governor, has said it would refuse to concede defeat, even if a recount of the Florida votes showed Bush the winner. That leaves Wall Street befuddled by the same question that has mesmerized the rest of the world: Who's going to be the next U.S. president?
U.S. tech stocks, already under pressure about renewed worries about sagging corporate profit growth, fell as much as 4 percent on Thursday afternoon shortly after Gore vowed to fight the election results. The blue-chip Dow Jones industrial average dropped 288 points, or over 2 percent, at that point.
A late-afternoon bounce, led by hot tech companies like JDS Uniphase , limited losses. The Nasdaq composite ended the day down just 31.35 points, or 0.97 percent, at 3,200.35, off 21.4 percent for the year, while the Dow ended down 72.81 points or 0.67 percent, at 10,834.25.
Most tech stocks dropped in after-hours trading on Thursday after Dell Computer reported a nearly 40 percent rise in quarterly profits but warned it expected profit margins to slip in the fourth quarter. Its stock, which closed down 6.3 percent at $28-3/8, fell further in after-hours trading, down to $26-1/2.
GAINS EXPECTED NEXT WEEK
But Wall Street's bulls already are looking beyond the results and are even brushing off a possible Gore victory.
"It does not matter to the averages of the market who wins, as long as you have a winner, as long as the uncertainty is gone," said Larry Rice, chief investment officer, Josephthal Lyon & Ross"The market won't like uncertainty and this is a gray cloud hanging over it, but the issue is really decided whichever man goes to the White House," said Henry Herrmann, a money manager Waddell & Reed Asset Management Co., which oversees $40 billion. "Neither man will have a clear mandate after winning on such a narrow margin so it will be gridlock to a fault."
The stock market likes a government bogged down by legislative gridlock because it takes off the sharp edges of each party's politics, checking the Democrats' tendency to try to boost government spending and the Republicans' tendency to seek deep tax cuts. Either approach could trigger a bear market by pushing the U.S. budget back into a deficit, stoking inflation and pushing the Fed into raising interest rates.
A Bush win would produce a narrow mandate, since he would be the first U.S. president in more than a century to get elected without wining the popular vote. If Gore were to get elected, he would face a hostile Congress.
That means investors once again will focus on economic factors moving the stock market, including interest rates and investment flows into mutual funds.
"Since no-one has a clear mandate it will push investors back to thinking about the fundamentals," said Courtney Smith, global strategist for the Orbitex Group of Funds which oversees $7 billion in assets. "We are looking for the market to rise next week because economic data is pointing to a soft landing (and) we're beginning to see demand for mutual funds.