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Ladieees and Gentlemen! Preeesenting. . . 1998: Thrills & Chills

By Lynde McCormickStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 21, 1998



BOSTON

STEP RIGHT UP and FEAST your very eyes on the most

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amaaaaazing feats of strength and brilliance ever seen on earth.

Watch with amazement as that dazzling daredevil of derring-do,

Alan Greenspan, plunges his head directly into the jaws of angry Asian tigers...

... GAZE SPELLBOUND as the giant Japanese behemoth gingerly navigates the

treacherous economic tightrope ...

... AND DO NOT DARE TO MISS the MOST amazing, MOST thrilling, MOST heart- stopping performance of the dazzling Dow duo as it bounces to dizzying new heights or plunges within inches of death- defying disaster.

A year to remember, 1998.

A year of exhilaration, calamity, and near collapse. A year for the books, when we all had ringside seats to unprecedented, unanticipated events and the remarkable responses that followed.

In 1998, for example, we learned that, yes Virginia, there is a bear. He is not a mythical creature, and every so often he emerges from the woods of Wall Street to sniff the air, paw the ground, and ravage the occasional mutual-fund portfolio.

Want to see the bear? Peek at the stock market chart on page 12. Observe the red, Dow line between July and mid-October.

Ai-eeeeeee-OUCH!

Almost 2,000 points to the downside. That. friends, is a bear market.

They usually last longer, but as Ned Riley, chief investment officer at BankBoston notes, "markets are moving in a much more compressed way. Bear markets that used to last four to six months now last four to six weeks."

And now we're right back at the top.

Mr. Riley's comment speaks directly to the underlying dynamic of 1998, and it wouldn't hurt to take notes here because I'm about to employ some highly technical economic theory.

Stuff has changed.

Not the way the weather changes, but the way global warming changes entire weather patterns.

The structure of the US economy seems to have changed dramatically. The year delivered strong growth - more than 3 percent - full employment, negligible inflation, and a big bonus - falling interest rates.

This is new. These things don't usually go together.

And it could either be a bubble ready to burst or a more entrenched consequence of improvements in technology and better ways of doing business.

For example, General Electric - a huge company in a constant state of change - says its profits will barrel ahead, unphased by global turmoil.

Like GE, American business has restructured over the years, but 1998 brought a hard test - notably collapsing foreign financial markets. Many companies emerged barely scratched, but more remarkable was the American economy's ability to - standby for more technical jargon - keep on trucking.

Other experiments in the economic lab did not turn out so well.

Russia, for example, struggled this year to absorb a market economy, a task it handled as deftly as a sword swallower wearing boxing gloves.

Russia defaulted on its debt. Western investors lost billions. Help and hope are in short supply.

Free-market reform also stumbled in beleaguered Asia. Malaysia backed away from free-securities markets. Indonesia imploded. And in Japan, a manipulated market economy eventually turned on its puppet master.

But still the US economy - and its Wall Street proxy - performed like a seasoned trapeze act.

So, a big hand, please, for Alan Greenspan, the Fed chairman whose prowess kept ferocious forces at bay.

He detected the point where uncertainty became panic and moved quickly to restore confidence, firing off a fast series of rate cuts. He calmed the beast.

A world-class act. A world-class year.

For 1999, encore! Hurr-ay, hurr-ay, hurr-ay. Step right up, folks.