The limits of a hard-line stance

A college classmate of mine used to speak with such self-assurance about so broad a range of issues that at least a few of the residents of our freshman dorm figured he was Nobel-bound.

That view unraveled as, one by one, we fell into factual discussions with him on topics about which we quietly knew a little something ourselves - flying a plane, say, or identifying some unusual breed of dog.

But he maintained his Oz-like illusion - at least among people who hadn't peered behind the curtain - when discussing topics that were more theoretical in nature.

Personal finance is one such area, wide open to interpretation, especially when war looms.

What's the future course of the stock market? I could track down my old classmate and get an earful.

But there are plenty of other places to turn.

In a talking-head culture, it's hard to be an agnostic about anything and still be taken seriously.

Everyone from your mail carrier to a team of Thai astrologers has in mind an attack date for Iraq. And almost as many people seem to have a firm idea about what a war's impact would be on our finances.

Is anyone worth listening to where your portfolio is concerned? Yes, reports long-time market watcher Eric Troseth, if you can keep what you hear in perspective.

Eric, who wrote today's lead story, tells how one highly regarded strategist for a big Wall Street firm used to joke that "market forecasts exist to make astrological forecasts look good by comparison."

Says Eric: "He would then discuss with intelligence, clarity, and insight the complex array of factors that would influence stock prices."

Analysts are paid to stake out firm positions. This one also knew the limits of drawing hard lines.

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