Bleak House: Despair On The 52-Week Low List (GE)(VZ)(GOOG)(C)

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Those rummaging through the garbage of 52-week low lists are usually bottom-fishing investors or desperate CEOs. But, the list is so broad that it has become a tableau of the market as a whole, especially the breadth of the market’s decline across almost every industry.

Not a single person in the world is surprised that financials like Bear Stearns (NYSE: BSC), Goldman Sachs (NYSE: GS), Citigroup (NYSE: C), and Cigna (NYSE: CI) hit bottoms last weak. Over in the car business both Ford (NYSE: F) and GM (NYSE: GM) dropped to lows. Perhaps more surprising Toyota (NYSE: TM), the world’s most successful car company, came close. Given its vast resources and cash position, that news said more than the GM or Ford numbers did.

Airlines, as expected, were crushed. AMR (NYSE: AMR) was at the front of the Charge of the Light Brigade. Retail would also expected to be down and many stocks in that sector were at bottom including the previously popular Best Buy (NYSE: BBY).

The newspaper industry, the dying art of people reading information off something other than a computer screen, also had a number of lows, led by Gannett (NYSE:GCI) and McClatchy NYSE: MNI).

If the painful trend ended here, with these sectors, it would at least be in line with what might be expected in troubled industries in a slowing economy. But, it does not.

Communications companies, in both telecom and cable, hit bottoms. Verizon (NYSE: VZ) did the limbo. So did Comcast (NYSE: CMCSA). These firms are known for the breadth of their businesses, astonishing cash flow, and iron-clads balance sheets. By the market’s logic, that data meant little.

Tech also was sucked under. That included some of the first class companies in the sector like Adobe (NYSE: ADBE), Nvidia (NASDAQ: NVDA), and Infosys (NASDAQ: INFY). This is worth some analysis. NVDA is expected to have a 37% increase in revenue this quarter and EPS that will move from $.28 last year to $.39. The company is down almost 50% from its 52-week high. Analysts expect Infosys revenue to be up 32% for the current period. Wall St.’s whirlpool is taking under strong companies as it pulls down the weak.

The same might be said for Big Pharma. Bristol-Myers (NYSE: BMY), Pfizer (NYSE: PFE), and Merck (NYSE: MRK) all posted lows. The markets have been worried about their product pipelines, but that issue has not become more acute recently and these companies are still, for the time being, cash machines. Most have yields above 1.5% and some are much higher.

Deep trouble has also extended to the internet content business which has done well since the tech crash of 2000. Last week (NASDAQ: TSCM), CNET (NASDAQ: CNET), and IACI (NASDAQ: IACI) dropped to 52-week lows. Given the low fixed costs that these companies sport along with pristine balance sheets, they would seem to be due some break.

Older line media companies, which have said they are not seeing any profound slowing in their businesses we sold off in a near panic dropping CBS (NYSE: CBS) and Time Warner (NYSE: TWX) to the lowest end of their charts.

Alternative energy stocks, not so long ago darlings, pushed to new bottoms. Verasun (NYSE: VSE) and Trina Solar (NYSE: TSL) could not hold on. Even the high cost of oil could not give them buoyancy

The most stunning part of all of this is the capitulation of the blue chips. Boeing (NYSE: BA) hit a 52-week low. The Air Force contract it lost is not worth enough spread over its life to do any real damage. Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) bottomed telling Wall St. that a company with 60% market share and 50% earnings growth was not worth some premium.

And, General Electric (NYSE: GE), the market’s poster boy for American services and industry, hit its low for 52-weeks. It has not backed off its robust projections for EPS improvement. It credit ratings remain the envy of almost every other company in the world. Its business and geographic diversity are supposed to make it the business equivalent of Plato’s ideal of the perfect state.

To look for investor concern about how deep and long the recession will be, the 52-week low list may be the most telling set of numbers available. It is an unusually broad and deep data-base. It is about money, and without emotion.

The list is saying that things are worse off than they seem.

Douglas A. McIntyre