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Final Score: Investors count their chips

3 minute read
Stephen Koepp

For Wall Street investors, 1984 ended with a weary sigh rather than the tooting of horns and tossing of confetti. Moneymen conducted more business than last year but made a lot less money. The New York Stock Exchange traded a record volume of 23.1 billion shares, a 6.9% increase over 1983. Stock prices, though, declined for the first time in three years. The Dow Jones industrial average closed on New Year’s Eve at 1211.57, a drop of 47 points, or 3.7%, from 1983. Last year had begun with bull-market bravura that sent the Dow to a peak of 1286.64 on Jan. 6, less than a point below the alltime high. But the market bounced downhill for the next six months and, despite a boisterous rally in August, never made a full comeback.

The heaviest losers of 1984 were speculative stocks. Shares on the American Stock Exchange, where many new and lower-priced issues are traded, fell 8.4%. Over-the-counter shares dropped an average of 11.2%. As a result, institutional investors and market-advice newsletters found it hard to pick any fast-rising stocks. Said Barton Biggs, managing director of the Morgan Stanley investment firm: “We have been like rock stars, but the fun is over for a while now that the customers think we can’t sing.”

Last year offered a few random lucky breaks instead of any smart-money trends. Indeed, the hottest property on the N.Y.S.E. was Allied Products, a Chicago agricultural-equipment maker that bucked an industry slump by producing cultivating implements designed to help farmers cut energy costs. Republic Gypsum, a Dallas manufacturer of wallboard and asphalt roofing, thrived on the Sunbelt’s homebuilding boom. California’s Mattel bounced back from last year’s worst-performers list by turning away from electronic games in favor of dolls like those in its deliriously successful Masters of the Universe line. Rollins Environmental Services, a Wilmington, Del., firm that handles industrial waste, benefited from stricter federal rules involving the disposal of such hazardous chemicals as polychlorinated biphenyl, or PCB. Shares in Cowles Broadcasting, the Daytona Beach, Fla., chain of TV stations, shot up after the company agreed to be acquired by H & C Communications.

The American Stock Exchange’s star performer last year was New Jersey’s Sterling Extruder, an equipment manufacturer. Riding the wave of capital spending in the U.S., its stock rose from 4 1/2 to 16 1/8. Flexible Computer of Dallas, which makes high-speed data processors, led the over-the-counter market by rising from 2 to 8 7/8.

The N.Y.S.E.’s largest loser of 1984 was Colorado’s Storage Technology, a computer-equipment manufacturer, which filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in October. Investors also became discouraged with Western Union when it failed to recoup quickly its investment in new services like electronic mail. Hesston, a Kansas-based farm-equipment maker whose stock was among the best performers in 1983, suffered last year from depressed sales. Cincinnati’s Omnicare, a hospital supplier, fell into disfavor after an accounting adjustment cut its profits. Williams Electronics of Chicago was zapped by declining interest in its coin-operated video games.

Crystal Oil, a Shreveport, La., refiner, posted the worst performance on the American Stock Exchange, dropping from 14 3/8 to 3 1/4. Healthdyne of Marietta, Ga., a manufacturer of devices that monitor infants for sudden-death syndrome, turned in the largest decline on the over-the-counter market, falling from 19 to 2 7/8.

Stock-market gamblers are not the only investors nursing wounds from 1984. The value of gold dropped 20%; silver was down 30%. Some antiques, however, kept their burnish. The price of Chinese ceramics rose 6%. One of the best investment bets in 1984 was bonds. The average return for high-quality, long- term corporate certificates, counting price appreciation and assuming that interest was reinvested, was 16%.

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