Astronomers chart the stars. On Wall Street, ''technical analysts'' do the same thing for the stock market.
Using straight edges, they draw lines on charts of the Dow Jones industrial average, projecting the future path of the market -- though with not nearly the same precision as astronomers with the stars. They examine the minutiae of the ticker tape and develop a jargon that only other chartists can understand. Their lingo is full of such phrases as ''necklines,'' which has nothing to do with fashion, ''head and shoulders'' (which has nothing to do with photographs), and ''breakouts'' (not related to jail escapes).
The technicians have become such a force that nearly every brokerage house keeps one on its research staff. Still other chartists, like Joseph Granville, publish newsletters and maintain a small but loyal following. Most brokers consider it worth noting what the chart plotters are saying, even if they don't believe in them.
For 1982, the technicians are widely split. Some are expecting a roaring bull market, while others are forecasting a return to the cellar. Still a third group thinks the market may just drift without direction in 1982. One analyst says the last time the technical community was so split was in 1976-77, when the market stayed in a 940-980 trading range before peaking out above 1,000 later in 1977.
In the bearish camp sits Robert Farrell, Merrill Lynch's technical analyst, who is predicting that ''a major bottom could occur in 1982. . . .'' Mr. Farrell believes investors remain too complacent about the stock market and its risks and are in need of a good jolt before they're ready for a new bull market. He says that once the market undergoes this jolt, investors could see a substantial rise in 1983-84.
Stanley Weinstein, who publishes The Professional Tape Reader, likewise does not believe a new bull market has started. He sees some ''early rays of sunshine'' in some of the technical factors he follows, but generally believes investor psychology is far too optimistic for a major bottom. He is telling his readers, however, that in the first half of 1982 ''we expect a super buying opportunity.''
E. F. Hutton's Newton Zinder is advising his firm's customers to sell into any rally that takes place over the next few weeks. He reasons that enough ''technical damage'' (stock selling trends that a technician sees as harmful to price prospects) has been done to the market over the last few weeks to warrant caution.
Another technician, Ralph Acampora, vice-president and head of technical research (chartist research) at Kidder, Peabody, is forecasting a ''choppy'' market in 1982. It will continue to waffle, he believes, moving in a trading range in the first few months from the low 800s to the low 900s. Mr. Acampora says he agrees with the bulls when they say sentiment has shifted to the positive side, and with the bears when they say that the decline of 1981 was not a simple one and that the market still needs a technical recovery. ''What we really have is a Mexican standoff,'' he says.
Still another market-watcher, Anthony W. Tabell of Delafield, Harvey, Tabell, agrees that it's tough to determine whether or not the market has bottomed. He has found only one similar period, in October 1957. At that point, he says, it took six months until the market took off in earnest.
In the bullish camp is Martin Zweig, who runs the Zweig Securities Advisory Service Inc. Mr. Zweig, who is often a panelist on Louis Rukeyser's ''Wall Street Week in Review'' TV show, is telling his clients there is too much pessimism about. Short interest (the number of shares ''sold short''; that is, the sale of borrowed stock which the seller hopes to purchase at a profitable price later and return to the lender) are at record levels and the mutual funds are loaded with cash - both normally bullish signs. And, even though interest rates recently ticked up, he says, ''I think the basic trend in rates is still down.'' Zweig says this week is a critical one for the market. If it doesn't move up, he says, he may have to reevaluate his position.
Probably one of the best-known technical analysts is Joe Granville. Mr. Granville for months has been saying the market is in for a severe slump. He still hasn't changed his mind. In a statement that his wife read to Frank (Rip) Slusser, a United Press International stock market reporter, Granville told the world that 1982 will start ''with another market massacre.'' He predicted the Dow would plummet to the 550-650 level because of the failure of Reaganomics to turn the economy around. He told UPI the recession could lengthen into a downturn ''that will rival some of the economic setbacks in the history books.''
One broker we know got a piece of coal from his wife for Christmas. What was his reaction? ''Is she telling me it's time to buy the coal stocks?'' he asks.
The tax selling finally dried up last week and the stock market managed to eke out a small gain. For the week, the widely watched Dow industrial average closed with a gain of 1.62 points. Volume was light all week except on Thursday, when the index tacked on four points. Over the course of the year the average lost 88.99 points.
Among the active stocks last week were several of the blue chips. IBM, Eastman Kodak, and Union Carbide all showed respectable gains.