Wary of the Super Bowl gauge? Then look at market volume
Stock market analysts concoct all sorts of auguries, from the widely followed Dow Jones industrial average to exotica such as the ''Super Bowl effect'' or the ''Santa Claus rally.''
To Robert Walsh, research chief of the Rotan Mosle securities firm in Houston , there is a quite humble barometer that, to him at least, is a key to understanding what investors think about the market. It is the volume of stocks traded on any given day.
Regardless of whether that volume is heavier on the buying or on the selling side (as long as it is not too far out of balance), high volume indicates faith in the activity of stock trading.
Sometimes that can mean too much faith. The roaring 162 million-share trading day on the Stock Exchange earlier this month worried Mr. Walsh. That was excessive, he says, and he expected a downturn. In the two weeks that followed, market performance dipped, with the Dow Jones industrial average closing Friday at 1,259.11, down 10.99 points for the week.
But Walsh notes that trading volume is still in what he considers a bullish range: On 12 of 13 recent trading days shares traded exceeded 90 million. He says that indicates ''that there is still strong demand for equities day to day.'' Investors are buying and selling in a normally brisk fashion - and are a long way from abandoning the stock market in favor of other investment vehicles, like money funds, real estate, and gold.
But if volume drops below 90 million shares a day in the near future, the market could have problems, Walsh says. Investors might be experimenting with jumping ship. At this point, however, he remains optimistic about the market's course. His judgment is that the DJIA is heading for a 1,450-1,530 range this year.
Investors and analysts like Mr. Walsh received further evidence the economy is strong - but not too strong - last Friday. The Commerce Department reported the fourth-quarter gross national product at 4.5 percent. Inflation measured by the GNP ''deflator'' rose at a 3.9 percent rate in the quarter. Such modest growth and modest inflation could allow the Federal Reserve to ease credit and drive down interest rates.
But at this stage, most market-watchers will believe such a move when they see it. Interest rates may not decline very rapidly or very far. Consequently, analysts counsel caution when investing lest the continuing high interest rates cause the market to begin slipping.
At present Robert Wibbelsman, of the Beverly Hills, Calif., brokerage firm of Cantor, Fitzgerald & Co., sees the market regrouping. The lackluster fortnight which followed the early-January rally served to correct speculative excesses of the market. He thinks stocks will be moving in the next two weeks into an ''oversold'' position from their recent ''overbought'' status. And while he gives the bull market the benefit of the doubt, he advises taking precautions.
Mr. Wibbelsman is an advocate of investors using ''escape parameters'' (or stop-losses) at this stage if considering buying a stock. He also recommends buying smaller quantities of a desired stock than one normally might and selling any stock that is not performing up to expectations.
The direction the 1984 market will take, he says, depends very much on its next few moves. If the DJIA slips 50 to 60 points, then ''I'm worried that may bring about a long-term bear market.'' Short of that, Wibbelsman says, one ''will not know until the next major rally how strong the market is.''
In this maturing bull market, Harry W. Laubscher, market analyst of the Paine , Webber, Jackson & Curtis brokerage of New York, advises close analysis of the projected income - not the projected performance - of stocks. Stay with big name stocks, he says, and buy them for the dividends they can produce, not for their speculative possibilities.
''We expect to see a good first quarter, on balance,'' Mr. Laubscher says, ''followed by one or two sloppy quarters later in the year.''
With his orientation toward yields rather than performance, Laubscher notes that the relatively high-yield bond market should give the stock market some competition in the short term.
His sentiments are echoed by Newton Zinder, research chief at New York's E. F. Hutton brokerage. Mr. Zinder says the bond market ''is looking better and better because of its yields, and that is tough competition.''
He sees the current stock market as ''very selective, with no real leaders.'' Although performance has been sluggish the past two weeks, Zinder finds troubling signs in the continued optimism of investors and the high level of the market. Short selling is declining somewhat, and speculation persists, he observes.
Zinder says he detects ''too many investors looking for one more rally above 1,300 and then hoping to get out.'' Because of this, he says, there is still too much sentiment oriented toward the upside - and that could be the recipe for a rude shock if the market dropped heavily on a particular day; optimists who are shocked can panic. Mr. Zinder, therefore, also cautions selectivity in investments.
The reading from these analysts is that the market may still move ahead - but not dramatically. Judicious investment appears very important at this stage.