In nine of the last ten trading days the S&P 500 index has increased.  While two weeks is not a market trend, as the market is random in the short-term, it surely makes people feel better.  On the anecdotal side, my conversations with clients, friends, and business associates have unanimously confirmed a growing optimism about the economy.  Government statistics remain mixed, but are showing signs of improvement. 

The S&P has risen five of the past six days or 3.3%, as investors demonstrate more optimism about this country’s economy.  Investor optimism continued to be fueled this week with several positive economic reports.  The first came on Tuesday as the Conference Board reported that consumer confidence in theU.S.rose in May to its highest level in six months.  The confidence index rose to 83.8 in May from 81 in April, the second consecutive monthly increase as energy prices fell and the stock market rose.  An index in the report that measures consumers' attitudes about conditions six months from now rose from 84.8 to 94.4, the highest level since September of last year.  

Today, assuming the Senate does as expected and passes the $350 billion tax cut bill, the campaign for theU.S.presidency in 2004 unofficially begins today.  The health of this economy will make or break Mr. Bush’s re-election bid for the presidency.  His father learned just how fast his huge popularity after the Gulf War dissipated when voters were made to feel that their pocketbooks were threatened by a weakening economy. 

It has been easy to focus on the numerous hurdles our economy has endured over the past several years and to assume that new ones will continue to manifest themselves, keeping us in the doldrums.  But, what if things started going right, or even mostly right, for the next several years?  One might argue that conditions have never been better in history for growth than they are today. 

Have you noticed that the stock market is doing consistently better in spite of the continuing dreary economic news?  One reason is that we have largely escaped the first quarter earnings cycle without a single major blowup or negative surprise; corporate earnings are coming in better than expected.  What’s more, analysts have shown no signs of cutting their second, third, or fourth quarter earnings estimates. 

These days, pretense doesn’t enter the equation when people talk about their money, their livelihood, their personal well-being or that of their families.  I’ve had many a “heart to heart” with clients and friends on just those subjects over the past several months and I’m sure you have too.  People have been scared economically and physically for what seems like a very long time.  Household budgets are tight, jobs are scarce, and people seem to be hunkered down. 

The mood on Wall Street is improving, albeit slightly.  General market improvement comes ahead of the economic reports provided by the government that substantially reflect the view that the lead-up to the war with Iraq had a significant dampening effect on the economy.  Investors seem more optimistic as they learn that many companies are reporting better-than-expected earnings.

Seemingly, the war and its commensurate uncertainties no longer hold such sway over the market.  However, that could change in a moment.  Focus has shifted to factors investors are more accustomed to addressing, like earnings.  The season when companies report their quarterly earnings is upon us.  So far, 33 companies that comprise the S&P 500 index have reported.  The next two weeks are the busiest of the season with over 300 large companies reporting their first quarter earnings.  Outside of General Electric today and Yahoo! this past Wednesday, there were no earthshaking earnings reports this week.

The proof of the negative impact of the war on the economy came this week as the government released several major historical indicators.  Both manufacturing and non-manufacturing sectors showed rather dramatic contraction, to levels not seen since October 2001.  Both business leaders and consumers alike continue to delay their investment and spending decisions in the face of the Iraqi war. 

In just a week the faint signs of optimism have succumbed to the brutal realties of war.  It is not clean and it rarely, if ever, goes according to script.  Investors are realizing that they likely allowed excessive optimism to get ahead of reality.  The war will take longer than earlier hoped.