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Published: Tuesday, 4/18/2000

Stocks, IRS throw depressing one-two punch

The Eighth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States forbids cruel and unusual punishment.

Somebody should sue the Internal Revenue Service, the New York Stock Exchange, and the Nasdaq Stock Market. Might as well throw in the American Stock Exchange, CNBC, and Yahoo!, Inc.

Last weekend was about as cruel and unusual as it gets. Millions of American taxpayers were simultaneously wondering how they are going to pay their taxes and whether there's still enough money left to seriously consider retiring in the 21st century.

Nobody said this thrill ride we call the stock market is going to be fun all the time. But the plunges get deeper, and the ride gets faster. And the heads are spinning.

A dwindling few investors remember the infamous crash of 1929, when the market lost a staggering $25 billion of value. Lots of us remember the crash of 1987, when the market lost $500 billion in value (at the time many thought it marked the end of civilization as we knew it).

On Friday - the darkest day Wall Street has seen in well over a decade - Nasdaq alone shed $540 billion. And over the last two weeks the latest "crash" lopped $2.6 trillion off the value of stocks - and it's not even an official bear market yet.

Well, maybe it's a bear market for the Nasdaq, which was down 34 per cent or so from its peak by Friday's close. But the Dow Jones industrial average and the Standard & Poor's 500-stock average were still some distance from the 20 per cent drop that normally signals a bear market. Both of those indexes came close to a 20 per cent drop a couple of times in the 1990s, but neither has fallen that far since 1990.

A trillion dollars here, a trillion dollars there, and pretty soon we're talking about real money. That $2.6 trillion that disappeared from our "wealth factor" amounted to just under $10,000 per man, woman, and child in the United States. We've lost a bit of our irrational exuberance.

Investors welcomed yesterday's rebound. But it takes nerve even to watch the good news - the Nasdaq composite average fluctuated 312 points in the process of ending up 218 points to the good.

Such volatility is, unfortunately, our fate. Even if the latest rally continues, it's entirely possible we may revisit the Dow 10,000 level several times - on the way down as well as the way up. It's also possible the Nasdaq 3,000 level could be tested again. It would require only a couple of bad days such as the market experienced last week.

In any case, it will take weeks, or months, for many good stocks to gain back the value they lost in just a few tumultuous Wall Street sessions.

April is perhaps the cruelest month. It presumably got that reputation because of depression and suicides, not the stock market. But October is the month of fright - not just because of Halloween but also because of the scary stock market.

Hopefully the April crash this year will help us have a peaceful October. And then there's the election. There's no rest for the wicked - or the fully invested.

Homer Brickey is The Blade's senior business writer.



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