Market's sag: welcome 'correction' or overture for the bears?

Even though the economy continues to look reasonably strong, Wall Street - always trying to fathom the future based on shreds of information about the past and present - is turning bearish.

Investors appear to need definite good news before resuming the bullish buying that has characterized the stock market since August of 1982. Investors' sentiment was clearly negative last week. The Dow Jones industrial average closed Friday at 1,230.00, down 29.11 points for the week.

The market, a number of analysts have been predicting, has needed the kind of selling it experienced last week. By this way of thinking, bringing stocks into ''oversold'' territory and freeing investment money puts the market in position for another big advance.

Pessimists, however, like Joseph Bartel and Richard Yashewski of the Butcher & Singer brokerage of Philadelphia, believe the market has peaked - or will shoot up only briefly once more before peaking. They believe a bear market is in the offing.

If they are right, or if the market is in another ''corrective'' phase, there are still safe harbors for investments. A number of advisers recommend out-of-favor stocks.

One possibility is electric utilities, including even those that are experiencing difficulties because of continuing financial problems related to nuclear plant construction. Selected banks are also mentioned, as are cyclical stocks like steel companies. And in a desultory market, consumer stocks such as fast-food companies and department-store chains can be attractive.

Of course, each company must be examined on a case-by-case basis. But a declining market - whether it is in a temporary correction or a long-term bear phase - can be a good time to buy some stocks because prices are dropping.

There is higher risk, however, unless one picks stocks that cannot drop much more and that may, in fact, head up. The old Wall Street saw is, ''Buy on bad news, sell on good.''

''If the market is going down,'' says Ernest Wiggins, manager of the Fidelity group's Contrafund mutual fund in Boston, ''the only thing you can really do is go with essentially washed-out stocks like I do, and average them into a contrarian fund.'' Mr. Wiggins says his hunch is that the market is still heading down, but with ''washed out'' stocks, daily fluctuations of the market do not faze him.

Rao Chalasani of the Prescott, Ball & Turben brokerage of Cleveland sees this as ''a very selective market.'' The PB&T strategy is to seek ''total return'' (capital gain plus dividend) of 15 to 20 percent from any investment this year.

Neither pessimistic nor optimistic, Mr. Chalasani says the DJIA should continue to trade in the 1,220-to-1,350 range this year. He notes that pension fund and individual retirement account money still could fuel an advance, but interest rates are worrisome, and ''all of this could go out the window if interest rates spike up.''

Most economists believe interest rates will remain high. The Federal Reserve System's Open Market Committee begins a two-day session today to set money-supply targets for the year. If, as expected, the panel leaves credit policy unchanged, interest rates will not drop.

Influential Saloman Brothers economist Henry Kaufman repeated his view last week that interest rates will remain where they are unless there are ''massive'' changes in fiscal and economic policies. Mr. Kaufman did not think those changes were likely even after the presidential election.

On the national front, the economy appears likely to dominate the news from now until election day. Prime issues: the budget deficit, interest rates, and the durability of the recovery.

Treasury Secretary Donald Regan last week predicted a continued strong economic recovery without a return to high inflation. Both he and President Reagan reject tax increases as means of cutting the federal budget deficit. A bipartisan commission is being formed to study ways of easing the deficit by $ 100 billion over three years, but it is likely to run afoul of political differences in this election year.

A sign of economic weakness in another area came when the Commerce Department reported the nation's merchandise trade deficit at $6.3 billion in December. That pushed 1983's total trade deficit to a record $69.4 billion, far worse than the previous high. The super-strong dollar makes American goods less attractive to foreign buyers at the same time it turns imports into bargains. The trade deficit in 1984 is expected to widen.

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