Mixed signals on course of the market make analysts cautious

Robert J. Wibbelsman of the Cantor, Fitzgerald & Co. brokerage, headquartered in Beverly Hills, Calif., trekked to Wall Street two weeks ago to try to gauge which way the bull market was heading.

What he found was a market as tricky as winter ice.

''It was really tough,'' Mr. Wibbelsman says, noting the crosscurrents that have swept the market, preventing a year-end rally. ''I just have to hold off any predictions about the market until mid-January. We're in a high-risk situation, and I end up telling people who ask: 'Do what you want, buy cyclicals , steels - but make sure you envision conditions to sell, and make sure you pull the trigger when you get to that point.'''

Mr. Wibbelsman's sentiments are echoed by Rao Chalasani of Prescott, Ball & Turben, a brokerage house in Cleveland; by Harry W. Laubscher of Paine, Webber, Jackson & Curtis in New York; and apparently by many investors who have been finding it difficult during December to discern the course of the market.

A year-end rally seemed in the works last week, with the Dow Jones industrial average rising 13.01 points Dec. 21. That rise was attributed to optimism stemming from a Commerce Department estimate that the economy will have grown only 4.5 percent in the final quarter of 1983. This estimate represented slower growth than the 6 to 7 percent many economists had predicted, and it led many investors and their advisers to believe that interest rates might not rise - in fact, might drop.

Bond prices increased. Interest rates on short-term Treasury bills fell. But the market rally did not persist the next day - perhaps, analysts said, because of underlying weakness in the transportation and utility sectors. These stocks are integral to the health of the industrials. Instead of confirming the industrial average at its new, higher level, they dragged the industrials down. The DJIA closed Friday at 1,250.51, up 8.34 points for the week.

Many of the measurements that analysts like Mr. Wibbelsman use are turning in mixed signals. Estimates of institutional cash positions are at a historically low rate; this, notes Wibbelsman, hints that ''fuel for an explosion does not seem to be there.'' The advance/decline line in December has failed to establish a clear pattern; to Wibbelsman it ''has been an awful jumble.''

Short interest - at a record 205 million-share high - is a barometer that is especially perplexing today. It counts the number of shares that investors have borrowed for immediate sale in the hope of covering such a sale with a purchase later at a lower price.

Although selling short is a bearish thing to do, a high amount of short interest is considered bullish from a technical point of view. The reason is that each of those borrowed stocks has to be replaced in the near future, and thus, while sentiment may be low, a certain amount of future buying has been locked in. Moreover, if all investors were bullish - and short interest, as a consequence, was low - then the market would have no place to go but down.

But Messrs. Wibbelsman, Chalasani, and Laubscher agree that the rise of options trading in the past few years has distorted the short-interest measure. Wibbelsman says the options factor has created ''an artificial short position.'' Laubscher says, ''Short interest is not what it appears.'' And Chalasani says it represents hedging more than anything else.

Like his colleagues, Chalasani is cautious. But he does note that ''the best time to expect a rally is when you have a semi-oversold position.'' In that view , he says, ''we should be getting a technical rally, but only in the large-capitalization stocks.'' He believes the pool of money from pension funds and from individual retirement accounts could help the stock market in the weeks ahead, but he is concerned about possible higher interest rates.

Chalasani calls the 13.01-point rise last Wednesday ''very premature,'' describing it as having been based on momentary good news. ''I think we must reach an equilibrium before we have an upsurge,'' he says. ''We could go down toward 1,230 (on the DJIA) first.''

Despite investor optimism over the economy and interest rates, Mr. Laubscher of Paine Webber says he ''anticipates that interest rates will rise, and we will have a pickup in inflation.'' The market will experience an important peak in January or February, he says, and then could fall. Such a peak could be brought on by a jolting piece of news - perhaps a surprise announcement that President Reagan will not seek reelection.

With such uncertainties, Laubscher and Wibbelsman recommend watching cyclical stocks, especially those in the capital goods sector. These seem to be attracting the greatest flow of new funds at present. Capital goods stocks would include steel, machine tools, and auto equipment. Other cyclical stocks include food, food chains, and electrical equipment.

As the year closes, this seems to be a trader's market more than a buyer's or a seller's market.

''It has been a ruthless year,'' says Mr. Wibbelsman. ''We've had a six-month consolidation, and now the market seems to be in a state of educated confusion. Maybe the new year will be different, but we cannot simply assume the market is going up.''

Whatever investments are made, Wibbelsman emphasizes, ''be rigorous about escape parameters, about stop losses'' - that is, about preset orders to sell stocks if they fall to a certain level.

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