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As war talk grows louder and likely dates of conflict crystallize, investors find it hard to focus on anything else.  The amazing thing is the prospect of it seems to carry new emotional impact daily.  Its rather compelling proof that markets can be just as emotional as the individuals who comprise them.  

Global and domestic conditions are playing into America’s long and strong suits – our economic system and our democratic ideals.  Productivity in the U.S. is rising faster than in any country in the world.  Innovation thrives here because of our broad diversity and because our free market system rewards innovation and risk-taking and because patents and copyrights protect profits for a sufficient time to reward the effort.  In a speech in 1859 Lincoln said:

Since reaching a five-year low on October 9th caused in large part by the threat of war with Iraq, the Dow has rallied almost 22% from those lows.  The NASDAQ has risen 32% as investors and short-coverers have snapped up depressed technology stocks.  What has changed?  The threat of war seems as great now as it did on early October?  Have stocks risen too far too fast?  The short answer is, quite possibly, but maybe just for the near-term. 

News that retail sales, excluding automobiles, improved by the most in six months sent the market averages up yesterday over 1.7% for the DOW and 2.5% for the S&P 500.  The .7% rise in sales was more than twice what economists had expected.  Treasuries fell and stocks rose as investors gained confidence that the consumer, hence the economy, might just be hanging on. 

Every two years we undergo a peaceful revolution in this country known as the mid-term elections, where one third of the Senate and all of the House of Representatives are elected or re-elected.  If you are a Democrat, the last thing you want to read is more talk about the election, but please bear me out.  There are some vital observations that may have been lost so far in the emotion and hype. 

Roughly three quarters of companies have reported their earnings for the third quarter.  First Call tells us that the actual earnings are running 3.1% ahead of the final estimated earnings for S&P500 companies.  But these earnings expectations have been cut several times by analysts in the weeks leading up to reporting season.  At the beginning of the second quarter of this year earnings growth was expected to be over 16%, but by the start of the Q3 reporting season expectations had been cut to just under 5%. 

We are nearing the end of October – Hallelujah!  EVERY bear market since the end of WWII has ended before November 1st of that bear market year.  EVERY seasonally strong period (November to April) in the second year of the presidential election cycle (like this one) has produced an up market.  And as Don Hays points out, we know that every time since the 1930’s that six-months of Dow weakness equaled or exceeded by the prior six months, is followed by a six-month period producing gains of at least 40%. 

Is the rally of the last few days for real – is the market bottom in place – do stocks rise from here – is the Bear dead?  Earnings drive stock prices in the long run and those reported so far this quarter suggest substantial improvement.  Nokia, for instance, said that they saw earnings stabilize in the second quarter and now believe by third quarter results that the turnaround is for real.  IBM reported an earnings increase of over 10% in a very difficult information technology-spending environment.  UnitedHealthcare said its earnings rose over 53% on cost-cutting and increased premiums.  Numerous others today and the preceding several days have beaten their earnings goals. 

If one watches CNBC or CNN for any length of time he would likely come away thinking that the stock market is on its final legs, and for good.  When things are bad, it seems that those who are best at pointing out how bad things are and could become, get the bear’s share of the spotlight.  Granted, there is plenty of bad news out there, but the good news is not getting through the dense bad fog.  A significant part of the good news is that many of the extremes being reached in today’s stock and bond markets are actually positive signals for better times ahead. 

Having just been in the mountains of West Virginia I was reminded of some very interesting parallels to today’s stock market.  From the mountaintop it seems one can see forever.  The view is spectacular, the air is fresh and clear, and problems seem miles away.  But down in the valleys everything is close and problems seem omnipresent.  Travel can be treacherous on the tight sharp switchbacks.  Just yards ahead around the next curve there may be a ten-ton coal truck barreling down the hill pushing the limits of control.