Stocks of many local firms finish '03 on high note


Published: Saturday, January 3, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 3, 2004 at 1:02 a.m.

Wall Street finished 2003 with a flourish, and stocks of many local companies followed suit.

All three of the major indexes turned in strong performances as the stock market came back from a disappointing stretch in 2002. In 2003, the Dow Jones closed the year up 25.3 percent, the S&P 500 rose 26.4 percent and the tech-heavy Nasdaq jumped 57 percent, its third-best annual performance ever.

Locally, CNB National Bank saw its stock rise from $15.89 to $23 in 2003. The Jacksonville-based bank, which has its southern division in Gainesville, opened its newest branch in May at Magnolia Parke on NW 39th Avenue.

"We'll direct our efforts this year to expanding that new office as much as we can," said Bob Cameron, CNB's southern division president. "The Gainesville financial services market is also getting some new faces, so we're going to remain as competitive as possible in the coming year."

Canada-based Potash Corp., the parent company of PCS Phosphate in White Springs, also had a successful year on Wall Street. The company's stock jumped from $63.59 to $86.48 in 2003, bolstered by increased demand for its phosphate-based fertilizer products.

In the recent third quarter, or the period between July and September, domestic phosphate sales rose 37 percent for Potash. The company credited the White Springs operation's increased production for part of its success.

A healthy construction industry in 2003 also helped shareholders of Jacksonville-based Florida Rock Industries Inc. The company, which produces construction materials and operates a cement plant in Newberry, saw its stock rise from $38.05 to $54.85 in 2003.

Shares of Wachovia Corp., which employs about 100 people at several banking locations in Alachua County, rose from $36.44 to $46.59 last year, and Tennessee-based Dollar General, a retailer that has a distribution center in Alachua, saw its stock rise from $11.95 to $20.99 in 2003.

Current economic conditions are clearly favorable for a rebound on Wall Street. Corporate profits began to rise in the latter part of 2003, and consumer spending and the housing market are still going strong.

Low interest rates also enabled many Americans to either refinance their home loans or buy a mortgage for the first time. That freed up extra spending money for investors, said Alan Hagopian, a certified financial planner in Gainesville.

"Interest rates have been a big 'pusher' for the market," Hagopian said. "They kicked so much money into the economy, and they've really been our saving grace all along."

But investors should also proceed with caution in 2004, said Jeff Davis, president of Falcon Financial Management in Gainesville. While the market may be on the rise at the moment, a correction is always around the corner, Davis said.

"If corporate earnings don't continue to go up, that will create an imbalance with stock prices," he said. "I've been telling people that they should expect to see a 10 percent drop at some point in 2004. It happened this year, and it happened in years past. It's part of the natural cycle."

Joe Coombs can be reached at 338-3102 or coombsj@gvillesun.com.

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