By Guy Halverson, writer of The Christian Science Monitor
The Christian Science Monitor
OCTOBER has tended to be an unhappy month for the United States stock market. It has been marked by several major market crashes, such as in 1929 and 1987. This October has been a very unhappy month for one stock market in particular: Nasdaq. And even more difficult days may loom ahead, with Washington regulators now turning their investigative spotlights on the exchange.
Nasdaq is the trading and stock quotation arm of the National Association of Securities Dealers (NASD). In terms of the number of shares traded daily, Nasdaq is the second-largest securities market in the US, behind the New York Stock Exchange. Some 5,000 companies are listed on NASDAQ, sometimes called the over-the-counter market.
Home to many computer firms, Nasdaq has been roiled by turbulence in high-tech stocks throughout much of this month. Worse, Nasdaq now is in the midst of a clash with federal-securities regulators that has come to a head in recent weeks.
"Everyone in the market has always assumed that the possibility exists for some questionable practices involving the spread" between buy and sell orders on Nasdaq trades, says one longtime Wall Street analyst. "The question we're all asking now, is whether there may be more than we've thought there might be. That's what Washington is going to want to determine in the weeks ahead."
On Oct. 23 the US Justice Department filed a motion in federal court here for an order forcing NASD to comply with prior departmental requests for information. Justice claims that NASD has refused to fulfill a request for documents made Jan. 20, 1995. Lawyers for Justice also argue that NASD has sought to hamper the sharing of information held by Justice with the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). The SEC is the main federal agency regulating Nasdaq and other US securities markets.
NASD officials deny the allegations, noting they have already turned over thousands of documents.
The Nasdaq probe is particularly sensitive to both sides of the financial street - Washington regulators as well as securities dealers - because the potential cast of characters is so large and involves an entire trading market. More recent stock scandals, such as the junk-bond and insider-trading cases of the 1980s, involved a few individuals or just one or two brokerage houses. …