Clouds Over Wall Street?

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The Wall Street Journal's story, based on unnamed sources said to be "familiar with" Goldman's plans, sends an ominous message, reinforced by another item, also in Friday's Journal: Wall Street earnings are slowing, and in some cases will fall short of analysts' estimates this quarter.

"Goldman Sachs Group is now taking a 'pause' on hiring that goes beyond the usual seasonal summer slowdown, according to people familiar with its plans," the Journal reports. "While the firm will make exceptions for top talent, this is significant. When the market leader makes such a move, you can bet others will follow. If Goldman is a leading indicator, this might become the first industry-wide freeze since the tech-stock meltdown."

The newspaper acknowledges that talk of a hiring freeze may sound "nutty," given how strong the stock market, deal activity and investment bank earnings have been recently. But, as they say, past performance is not necessarily indicative of future results. In Friday's "Heard on the Street" column, the Journal cites unnamed senior executives at some firms saying profits for the May quarter, while still "healthy," will be less than the first quarter's. Some will miss current estimates, which is unusual for Wall Street, the newspaper notes.

The unaccustomed pessimism about earnings isn't being voiced only backstage. On Thursday, Bear Stearns' share price plunged more than three percent after a Goldman analyst slashed his estimate of Bear's second-quarter earnings by 22 percent, citing heavy exposure to mortgage underwriting, which has been hit by the decline of subprime mortgages.

Analysts also expect Goldman itself to post lower earnings in the second quarter compared with the first quarter, and in 2008 compared with what it's predicted to earn this year, according to the Journal.

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