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Un-merger hits Street

The bombshell breakup of Tele-Communications Inc. and Bell Atlantic stirred up trouble on Wall Street Thursday as investors embarking on the info highway suddenly found themselves on a road to nowhere.

News that the cable mammoth and its telco suitor were parting ways sent a tremor through the media and entertainment sector, which has been one of the highest fliers in an extraordinarily high-flying market.

But the merger news wasn’t the only bearish bulletin investors received Thursday. To make matters worse — much worse — the bondmarket tumbled early on , following an unexpectedly strong durable goods report for January. Evidence of solid economic growth is viewed as a precursor to higher interest rates, which are negative for stock and bond prices.

Rising interest rates are also depressing for the cable stocksbecause the industry is so highly leveraged. Tuesday’s decision by regulators to impose another 7% reduction in cable rates further eroded the cash flow-to-debt coverage ratios of many cablers.

The heavily cyclical Dow Jones Industrial Average fell 51.78 points or 1.33% to close at 3839.90, triggering the New York Stock Exchange’s restraint on computer-linked sell programs shortly before the closing bell. The Nasdaq composite index, which includes TCI, Comcast, Adelphia and Jones Intercable, lost 9.67 points or 1.25% to settle at 779.44. In the broad market, losing issues trampled gainers by about 9 to 2.

Bell Atlantic rose $ 1.88 to $ 54.25 per, on relief that the telco would not overleverage itself. TCI fell $ 1.88 to $ 22.38 per share on volume of 24.9 million shares. Other issues affected by the news included Cablevision Systems, which is in discussions with Time Warner and US West, sinking $ 5.25 to $ 62.25 per. Time Warner slipped 63 cents to $ 37.63.

The consensus appeared to be that Wall Street had overreacted as usual. The market’s skittishness, however, has become more significant given its precarious stance at near-record levels and the perception that only one good push is needed to topple it.

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