The advice from financial experts has been painfully repetitive during weeks of decline in the markets: A bottom should be near. History says stocks always bounce back. Don't sell now and miss the recovery.
But when panic selling washed over the markets again Friday, sending the Dow Jones industrial average down as much as 6 percent at one point, the pundits and money managers sounded less certain than ever about what comes next.
“There's a debate right now, is the next major milestone in the Dow 5,000 or 10,000,” said Art Hogan, chief market strategist at Jefferies & Co. “I think compelling arguments can be made on both sides.”
Many financial professionals, Hogan included, think the bad news is largely reflected in current stock prices: a global economic slowdown, a residential real estate recession, the credit market crunch and poor corporate earnings.
It already seemed that way when the Dow Jones industrial average plummeted 27 percent in the first eight trading days of this month to a 51/2-year low of 7,882 mid-session on Oct. 10.
But investor emotions remain a wild card in a shaky global economy. After climbing back near the 10,000 mark briefly last week, the Dow is sliding again and finished down 4 percent Friday at 8,379. As the market opened, the potential loss was feared to be much greater after some international markets were hammered by double-digit declines.
Stock markets in Europe and Asia had plummeted, and oil prices plunged past their lows for the last year on growing fears of a global recession. Russia's major indices declined more than 14 percent; the drop was so steep that authorities closed that nation's major stock exchanges early and said they won't reopen until Tuesday.
U.S. stock traders started the day on edge, but ended Friday's session relieved that it wasn't worse than a 4 percent drop.
Analysts are at a loss to estimate how much further the descent might go, just as they can't explain the latest drop.
“It just is something we haven't seen in our lifetimes, so it's hard to tell exactly where we are,” said Tom Forester, portfolio manager for the Forester Value Fund in Chicago.
“This seems more like panic selling than fundamentally based,” he said. But if the financial system remains troubled and everyday loans are tougher to get, he said, “then who knows? Maybe panic's the right move.”
Investors' fear is in evidence not just in the markets but in the faces of those who have lost tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars in their retirement and other accounts this fall.
“Anxiety is running overtime,” said Stephan Quentzel, chief of primary care psychiatry at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York.
The steady stock decline makes people feel more emotionally vulnerable and increasingly prone to bad market moves – usually ill-timed decisions to sell – to try to regain a sense of financial security, he said.
The tension shows in other forms, too.
Across from the New York Stock Exchange, artist Geoffrey Raymond set up a giant canvas Friday featuring the face of former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan and invited passers-by to write their own messages.
One person wrote simply, “Greenspan is the devil.” Another wrote: “When things go too well, someone should get nervous.”
Steve Martin, a 55-year-old systems analyst standing nearby, said he has been too afraid to check his retirement savings balance during the crisis. He has his suspicions, though: “The 401(k)'s almost gone.”
That's still not enough to make him consider shifting out of stocks, with his portfolio already down so heavily.
“I think I kind of missed that opportunity,” he said. “I figure at this point I'm just going to ride it out.”
Many experts continue to say holding on may be the best strategy left.
When clients of Piedmont Investment Advisors have asked about shifting their funds from stocks to cash during the tumult, the Durham, N.C., managers at the firm have asked clients to remain calm, said Dawn Alston Page, executive vice president and director of research.
“We're pretty much of a mind that any broad-scale move to cash is much too late in the game,” she said.
Morningstar Inc.'s director of personal finance, Christine Benz, also is among those advocating hanging in there.
“I can't say whether it's the bottom or whether we're even near the bottom,” she said. “But when it's the bottom, there won't be flashing lights and someone with a bullhorn saying it's time to buy.”
Investors risk being caught off guard by a market rebound when they sit on cash investments. That's because it takes time to reposition the money and get back in the market, and it's easy to miss some of the market's biggest days.
A lot of smart money is increasingly betting on a turnaround, and not just Warren Buffett, who has invested billions in the market in the past month.
“Some of the best (mutual fund) managers are saying they're finding an awful lot to buy right now,” said Morningstar's Benz.
The buying is being done by those with patience and a long-term view, since few have any confidence that the bottom has been reached as the world enters what many think will be a particularly painful recession.
Julie Murphy Casserly, a certified financial planner and president of JMC Wealth Management in Chicago, sees most of what's going on in the market this month as fear-based, since stocks are trading for barely what their companies are worth in cash.
“We just have to let people's fear shake out and let people start to get their footing underneath them,” Casserly said.