Nasdaq Falls Below 4,000 on Biotech, Technology Weakness

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Since the beginning of the year, the Nasdaq Composite Index has given up more than 4% of its value, dropping from a high of around 4,357 in early March to close Friday at 3,999.73. That’s the index’s lowest close since Feb. 3.

The chief culprit is the healthcare sector, with biotech stocks slumping badly. The Dow Jones U.S. Biotechnology Index was down 7.74% for the year as of Friday’s close; the Dow Jones Medical Supplies Index is down 6.38%. The tech sector is down just 0.93% for the year to date, with electronic office equipment makers down 6.74% and computer hardware makers down 4.22% to lead the slide.

The big loser in biotechs is Prana Biotechnology Ltd. (NASDAQ: PRAN) down nearly 74% which has essentially imploded following a failed Phase II IMAGINE study of its Alzheimer drug. The second-biggest loss has come at Geron Corp. (NASDAQ: GERN), down 61% primarily due to a full clinical hold on its New Drug application for the company’s liver treatment.

The plunge in computer hardware stocks is led by 3D Systems Corp. (NYSE: DDD), down 48% so far in 2014. A short seller’s report hit the stock hard in late January, and recent insider selling has not helped the situation. The 3D printing stocks are clearly a momentum play, and last year’s upward momentum has been turned around so far this year.

Xerox Corp. (NYSE: XRX) is down 9% so far this year, the second-worst showing among the electronic office equipment stocks. The company was downgraded to Market Perform at BMO Capital Markets in late January and cut to Underperform at Barclays. The $6.4 billion acquisition of Affiliated Computer Systems in 2010 did not provide the expected boost to Xerox’s revenues or profits. A change at the top is clearly called for, but so far the board of directors has chosen to sit tight.

The about-face on momentum stocks has also been a big negative for the index. Investor hopes for growth have cooled, and the techs and biotechs that make up a large part of the Nasdaq Composite represent a large portion of momentum plays. Zynga Inc. (NASDAQ: ZNGA), for example, was up more than 50% year-to-date in early March and is now up just 7%. Facebook Inc. (NASDAQ: FB) was up over 30% in March and is now up just 7% as well.

With the beginning of the first-quarter earning season, investors appear to be shedding these momentum plays in advance of potentially poor results. Solid results from Yahoo! Inc. (NASDAQ: YHOO) on Tuesday and Google Inc. (NASDAQ: GOOG) on Wednesday may slow the rush for the exits. But investors don’t seem to be counting on it.