NEW YORK — THERE is a Wall Street adage that a rising tide floats all ships.
The tide is in.
The widely watched Dow Jones industrial average bobbed on Nov. 20 above 5,000 for the first time in its history. It later sank back. But no matter which way the average goes from here, the bull market will have added billions to the US economy and helped millions of people, whether they have a stake in the market or just read about it.
* At Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C., the soaring market has bolstered the endowment fund. As a result, the university has decided to hire 40 new instructors to make classes smaller and to give next year's freshmen laptop computers.
''It's been a wonderful market,'' says Louis R. Morrell, vice president for investments and treasurer.
* Spyglass, Inc., a Naperville, Ill. company, went public last June. Its stock leaped from $17 per share to $104 per share. This quarter, the company, which produces software for the Internet, was able to double its sales force.
''The stock is now currency for us if we chose to acquire another company or some technology,'' says Randy Pitzer, a company spokesman.
* The state of Louisiana decided to shift parts of its Educational Trust Fund from bonds to stocks. In only a few short weeks, it took a $250,000 gain on an investment of a few million dollars.
''We've experienced the market rise,'' says Tony Gelderman, chief of staff and general counsel to the state treasurer. The money will go towards computers and other ''educational'' enhancements.
''There is a direct wealth effect - people who earn capital gains feel richer and more able to spend - and they do spend,'' says Benjamin Friedman, a professor of economics at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. ''Lore has it people buy big-ticket items.''
Such bull-market stories are not unusual. For example, it has been a very good year for initial public offerings. So far, 480 companies have floated their first public shares.
''It is a great time to go public,'' says William Dunkelberg, the chief economist for the National Federation of Independent Business in Washington, D.C.
According to the newsletter IPO Aftermarket, an investor fortunate enough to get any shares in these companies has seen an average gain of 39 percent.
The market's climb has been reflected in the broader averages as well. Over the last 12 months, the Standard & Poor's 500 index has risen more than 30 percent, and the NASDAQ Composite, which tracks over-the-counter stocks, is up over 35 percent.
Economists claim the market's rise reflects confidence in the overall health of the economy and the changes taking place in Washington.
''We may start to see serious progress on reducing the size of the budget deficit and get some help on tax reform,'' says Mr. Dunkelberg, who also teaches at Temple University in Philadelphia.
In addition, he notes, investors have been pleased that inflation has remained low, thus allowing room for interest rates to come down further.
Falling interest rates, while helping the investment climate, are actually making it more difficult for the nation's pension funds, which traditionally invest 30 to 40 percent of their assets in bonds.
With bond yields dropping, pensions' liabilities will exceed their asset growth, says Ron Ryan, president of Ryan Labs, a Wall Street research firm. Mr. Ryan estimates that pension liabilities this year will exceed asset growth by about 9 percent, or roughly $200 billion.
In cases where pension plans are overfunded, pension-fund managers are nervous that the stock market's gains will make their assets look like sugar plums to legislatures and governors trying to find additional fund for pet programs.
''The politicians will take advantage of the excess created by the bull market to fund whatever programs they want to fund,'' warns Tom Milne, chief investment officer for the State of Alabama's $15 billion pension fund.
Mr. Milne, whose fund is 20 percent overfunded, worries that governors, watching the stock market's rise, will start to reduce contributions to the pension funds.
''If you start to believe bull markets are the norm from now on, you may get into a dangerous funding position,'' he says.
Instead, he cautions, investors need to remember that bull markets end eventually.
''When I see people paying bills with credit cards because they won't take money out of the stock market, that makes me nervous,'' he says.