Bears Dell-t A Blow

The situation looks tense.

The Three Bears arrive home to find that a Shirley Temple-like creature has taken the place by storm.

The kitchen's a mess. The furniture's busted. And the creature had the arrogance to grab some ZZZs up in the bedroom.

The angry bears growl and paw the air. Swat teams descend. Geraldo parachutes in. Special prosecutors are appointed.

Goldilocks, it appears has run out of room to romp. She's toast.

But an alert, confident Goldilocks snaps out of her snooze, surveys the hostile crowd - adjusts her makeup - then reaches into her briefcase for a Dell computer (laptop, of course).

The bears skedaddle into the woods; Geraldo goes looking for a white supremacist to interview; the special prosecutor offers full immunity.

Goldilocks holsters her Dell and wanders into the kitchen looking for some goat cheese to sprinkle on the porridge, wondering whether the 1999 BMWs are out yet.

How's that for extended metaphor?

Get ready for the moral.

As you can see from Jim Tyson's story to the right, the woods are full of stock-market bears - no shortage of cynics. From their perspective, the current Wall Street story could be told by the brothers Grimm, very grim.

They say the Goldilocks economy, in which everything is "just right," has not only lost some of its curl but has already driven the market as high as it can go. Higher? No way, they say.

But Goldilocks is full of surprises.

She has friends like Dell Computer, the Texas personal-computer maker.

On Wednesday it delivered its quarterly profit report, which suggested that Goldilocks is not just alive and well but armed and dangerous, if you're a bear.

Dell did not exist at the start of this decade, and it has become the corporate model of the next millennium. It is now the top seller of personal computers - with profits up 62 percent and success even in Asia, the economic version of day-old porridge. Dell's stock price has quadrupled over 12 months.

Dell can do no wrong and, it seems, can suffer no harm.

And if Dell truly represents the new-era, Goldilocks economy - if the US is chock full of companies like it - then call BMW to order the red and the black.

But if the genius behind Dell's efficiencies are largely confined to Dell, then a nice Ford Taurus might be more in order.

The stock market, right now, is stuck in what the smart folks call a trading range, bouncing around without establishing a clear trend up or down.

When the Dow takes a plunge, as it did a couple of weeks ago with a 300-point one-day loss, the bears start humming "Taps." When it bounces up, as it did last week, the bulls snort "Happy days are here again."

But the bearish scenario holds some weight, and last week's rallies don't necessarily diminish it. When you have a correction as severe and as fast as the one Wall Street just delivered - from a high on the Dow around 9400 in July to a low near 8400 last week - the market often retraces those losses by 50 percent before heading back down again.

If you're a long-term investor who invests on a regular basis, all of this is just noise. Keep at it. And if you want to start a long-term program, this is as good a place as any. Even, if the Dow falls to 7200, you'll be in fine shape.

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