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Citigroup's Ills May Signal Market Isn't Near Bottom

With speculation mounting over Citigroup's future, investment pros are worried that the bank's problems signal that the market is not near a bottom—but ready to fall further.

Anxiety ran high Friday as Citigroup's stock continued to tumble even after CNBC reported that the bank is considering several options to shore up confidence, including finding a merger partner.

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Other Wall Street giants like JPMorgan Chase and Goldman Sachs also saw investors scrambling for the exits.

"It's very stressful," says Kathy Boyle, president of Chapin Hill Advisors in New York. "I don't know if this is an inflection point. I think it's just one more nail in the coffin."

Citigroup's stock isn't out of the woods yet, either. If its share price remains below $5, as it has since Thursday, that could trigger a major selloff by pension funds, mutual funds and other institutional investors that aren't allowed to own stocks below that level.

Citigroup CEO Vikram Pandit, whose leadership has come under increasing criticism, told employees Friday that he would like to keep the company together and doesn't want to spin off the Smith Barney brokerage unit.

For Investors

Amid speculation that Pandit's job may be in jeopardary, many investment pros expect Citigroup to make some kind of announcement this weekend.

Market watchers do expect a bounce-back if Citigroup manages to work out a solution to its problems. But with paralysis in Washington and the financial crisis still far from over, there isn't much to keep investors bullish for long.

"The problem," says Mike Larson, analyst at Weiss Research's Money and Markets investor newsletter, "is as long as you have the underlying rot of the financial system, the underlying decline in the economy, the worst recession since the 1980s and going back even further than that--that's a challening environment to say, 'Hey, let's load up on stocks.' "

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The Good News

Still, there is hope that the market might have a brief Santa Claus rally that would take stock indexes off their lows.

Boyle, of Chapin Hill Advisors, uses a forecasting service, Fortucast, that has been uncannily accurate in predicting the recent market gyrations, going so far as calling a Nov. 21 temporary bottom.

The service is predicting the S&P 500 to fall to 747 then bounce to about 787 in a rally that will last until Dec. 15, after which the index is expected to fall to 695, particularly if it breaks through the 740 level. The service then sees a six-week rally to follow.

"What's distressing here is it's very hard to figure out what the leadership is going to be," Boyle says. "Our view is we're just going to have this short little rally and then get killed again. We are looking for a Santa Claus rally, but then looking for a retest of the October lows."

Boyle has managed to make some money in this market by playing exchange-traded funds, especially those that pay double when particular indexes move lower.

The ETFs present more risk to investors, especially those who don't pay attention to market particulars, but offer huge paydays on the other side.

In particular, the Pro Shares UltraShort Financials ETF has seen stunning returns, gaining more than 40 percent this week alone and more than doubling in value for the month.

Conversely, there are some staggeringly cheap ETFs that look for positive news, with the ProShares Ultra Real Estate fund at its all-time low as the housing market continues to slump.

Still, with President-elect Barack Obama reluctant to make public what his approach will be when taking office, the climate of uncertainty pervades.

"The problems are so severe. Obama's got a huge amount of work to do," Boyle says. "At some point it just piles up and there will be a rally, but I don't think it's a rally you can trust because we haven't gone through enough of the fundamental changes."

It's an environment where no single event, good or bad, can be considered a reliable gauge on where the market is headed.

"I don't think it makes sense for individual investors to just jump in and buy because Treasurys had a big blowoff yesterday or Citigroup may be getting some resolution," Larson says.

When the market really improves, he adds, "you're going to see the setups in the charts. You're going to see the fundamentals start to improve. It's sobering advice. It's certainly not what a lot of people want to hear, but I think it's realistic advice, too."

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