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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. 

Companies will soon begin reporting their fourth quarter earnings to their shareholders and the market will have some real information to digest.  The market, between earnings announcements, is generally influenced more by macro economic, political, and emotional events than it is by the actual earnings performance of the sum of the companies it represents.  Since the SEC enacted Regulation FD (requiring all public companies to make significant and material announcements publicly and broadly) in August of 2001, a certain rhythm has developed.  The ‘dance’ as we shall call it between companies’ managers and analysts, media, and stakeholders actually has three movements. 

Today, economists are declaring the recession is over.  In fact, it was likely over before it was officially announced last fall.  This morning, the government released its data on fourth quarter Gross Domestic Product that showed the economy grew at a 1.7% rate. This strong increase suggests that the first quarter of this year may be the strongest in two years.  Increased spending on the part of the government and the consumer likely fueled growth as strong as 4.2% say the experts.  And that spending is likely to continue as the University of Michigan Confidence indicator rose to a 15-month high of 95.7 in March from a 90.7 in February.  Bloomberg reports that consumer spending grew at a 6.1% annual rate in the fourth quarter, the fastest pace since the second quarter in 1998. 

Investors’ primary focus continues to be on the economic indicators as we near the next round of corporate earnings pre-releases.  The week’s economic releases were decidedly more mixed than typical of the last few weeks, but the trend is still very good.  Tuesday’s news from the Fed caused some difficulty for the stock and the bond markets.  They left rates unchanged and dropped their stance that weakness poses the greatest threat to the economy, which was good news for economy watchers, but almost before the words were out, traders started selling stocks and bonds on fear that interest rates would soon be rising.  The Fed said “the information that has become available since the last meeting indicates that the economy, bolstered by a marked swing in inventory investment, is expanding at a significant pace.” 

Good Friday morning to you. If you get carried away by foreboding terms, today is rich with them. The all-familiar warning to Julius Caesar in Shakespeare’s play ‘beware the Ides’ has traversed the ages with a sense of foreboding. But the day itself was no more foreboding than any other day in Caesar or in Shakespeare’s time. The term ‘Ides’ comes from the earliest Roman calendar, according to Borgna Brunner of Infoplease.com. The Roman calendar organized its months around three days, each of which served as a reference point for counting the other days. Kalends was the first day of the month, Nones, the fifth or the seventh day, depending on the month, and Ides was the 15th day in March, May, July, and October and the 13th in the other months. Another phrase of forbiddance heard every so often is ‘Triple Witching Friday’. The term refers to the final hour of trading before equity options, index options, and index futures contracts expire. Because of contract schedules, a triple witching hour occurs four times a year, each time marking heavier than usual trading and greater volatility. Now that hocus-pocus is out of the way, let’s deal with some real information. The week’s numbers were more mixed than last week, but on balance, a continued recovery remains likely. Retail sales were considerably weaker than expected, but the data are preliminary. Given the seeming disparity with the other evidence, such as high unit vehicle sales and favorable chain store data, it is reasonable to expect that these numbers will be revised higher in months to come.

The week has been an exciting one for stock investors as proof of a turn in the economy mounted.  Notably, in yesterday’s Congressional testimony, Mr. Greenspan said the economy is “already improving,” revising comments made before Congress just a week earlier.  Professionals on market trading floors say this rally represents real buyers, not just short-coverers.  Also encouraging is the fact that the rally is more orderly than previous ‘panic’ rallies where money managers feared being left behind and, consequently, over-inflated stock prices as they bought in at any cost.

The economy is coming out of, or may be out of recession.  Would somebody please notify the market?  Positive economic news is becoming almost commonplace, but its market impact has been mostly counter-intuitive.  In a bear market bad news is bad news and good news is sometimes bad news.  Many of the favorable economic releases of late have been greeted with fears of inflation and higher interest.  Yesterday, Jack Guynn, Atlanta Fed. President and non-voting member of Greenspan’s inflation police, knocked the wind out of the struggling market’s sails when he said that the Fed stood ready to raise rates at the first sign of inflation.  The S&P 500 and the NASDAQ dropped 1% and 1.5%, respectively on his comments.  If Mr. Guynn’s understanding his counterparts’ positions is true, then the Fed has learned NOTHING about the productivity miracle of the 90’s.  I think they have and that Mr. Guynn doesn’t speak for the majority.