The economy is getting better, albeit very slowly and with some mixed signals.  Investors now choose to concentrate individual company announcements waiting for proof at the company level that things are getting better.  They are not yet willing to simply trust the government compilations alone.  Corporations must begin to show improvement individually. 

A handful of clients called or emailed this week to discuss the prospects for the market and what actions they should take given its current weakness.  I was as candid as possible with them and will be the same in my remarks today. 

It’s getting increasingly difficult to find the silver lining among these ugly, gray clouds.  Stocks have fallen for ten of the past twelve weeks.  The stock-price drubbings have taken their toll on the collective confidence of investors as well as this writer.  Each day brings news of tragedy in Israel and Palestine, or of escalation in the Kashmir region, or setbacks in the war on terror.  If the global news abates, there’s plenty of homespun grief to compensate; from political and bureaucratic finger-pointing over potential advance warning of 9/11, and an ever-growing list of blue-chip corporations admitting accounting transgressions, to company rating downgrades, and securities analysts stumbling over each other to get the bad news out first. 

In answer to the pleas of the citizens of Atlanta trying to save their city from destruction by fire, General Tecumseh Sherman wrote his infamous response “war is hell.”  As May draws to a close, it is war that worries equity markets.  Continued improvement of the economy has been insufficient to lift stock prices.  The declining dollar, Israeli-Palestinian tensions, and looming war between nuclear powers, India and Pakistan continue to suppress equity values.  It seems like that old malaise is back.

Investors spent the week coming to terms with the increasing likelihood of a slow economic recovery, mixed corporate news, softer retail sales, renewed terrorist threats, and general apathy.  The S&P was up two days and down two, not counting today.  It was down 1.3% for the week.  Our models were down only slightly though, due to the changes made over the last few weeks. 

Benjamin Graham, called the father of fundamental investing, said, “in the short run the market is a voting machine; in the long run, it is a weighing machine.”  A problem investors face today is that the ‘short run’ seems to be more like the long run.  Just how much longer the wrenching ups and downs will go, no one can say, but it is clear that the longer it goes, more people leave in disgust. 

“It was the best of times, its was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us . . .”  Charles Dickens – A Tale of Two Cities

The best of times seems like a distant memory in so many ways, particularly as we focus on all the bad news out there and ignore the good that peeks through occasionally.  There’s plenty of ‘darkness’ adding to our confusion, but there are hints of light too.  On Tuesday, Cisco’s Chairman John Chambers spoke of improving business.  His comments and his company’s results sent the markets soaring, as short-sellers covered their bets against optimism and buyers bet that the pessimism might be waning.  If only for a day, optimism was openly discussed and celebrated and the negative took a brief respite. 

My wife recently constructed a beautiful labyrinth in our garden.  Labyrinths have been around for thousands of years and are found in almost all religious traditions as well as cultures including Native American, Greek, Celtic and Mayan.  Like Stonehenge and the pyramids, they are magical geometric forms that define sacred space.  When one walks a labyrinth, he meanders back and forth, turning 180 degrees each time he enters a new circuit.  Changes in direction induce shifts in states of awareness. 

Another word for risk is volatility – specifically negative volatility.  Webster defines volatility as the tendency to vary often or widely, as in price.  Obviously, we worry more when stocks vary downward as they do in bear markets.  April and October are the market's most volatile months.  It is during these months that companies report their first and third calendar quarters.  The first quarter is important as it sets the tone of the year’s earnings expectations.  By October, enough of the year is ‘on the books’ for the company to give a rough idea of what the year will actually look like.  It is a time when ‘confessions’ are made if the company was too optimistic earlier in the year.  It also used to be a time when management expressed excitement if they had an exceptionally good year.  SEC Regulation “Full and Fair Disclosure” has effectively minimized those wildly optimistic statements because of the liability brought if they are not met. 

Over the past several days, companies have released their calendar first quarter earnings and given their best guesses about near-term prospects.  The actual earnings reports have been in rather stark contrast to the more downbeat management projections for business in the coming quarters.  Earnings reports seem to support the economic recovery, but they are somewhat below earlier expectations.  Thomson Financial/First Call estimates that profits for the S&P 500 companies probably dropped 10.7% in the first three months of 2002, more than the 8.2% drop forecast by analysts at the beginning of March.  On the flip side though, 59% of companies reporting to date have beaten earnings projections, a higher percentage than at any time since 1994: a period when the Fed actively promoted expansion as they do now.