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A Year That Cooked, Then Crumbled

This is the issue when we me-ander back through the past year, sum up the important events, and reach for brilliant conclusions.

But this time, we thought we'd let you extend your own reach. So take your pick; 1997 was the year of:

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Living large ...

... when every measure of the stock market smashed record after record. By Jan. 21, the Dow Jones Industrial Average had already set 10 record highs. Last summer, it blasted through 8000 and kept right on going. Investors with minimal market smarts boasted returns that exceeded the pros. And the pros, well, turn to Guy Halverson's story on Page B6 to see how they're faring at bonus time.

Or, it was the year of:

Living dangerously ...

... when Asia ushered in a strong dose of risk - some say reality - to the American stock market. Starting last summer, Asian markets careened out of control, wiping out billions of dollars. The carnage enveloped South Korea, one of the world's largest economies, and previously most prosperous, leaving that nation's economy on the junk pile. And it now jeopardizes Japan.

In a nutshell, Wall Street either kept up the winning ways of a 15 year bull market, or it ran out of rope.

A lot of you will remember the 1997 investment year kindly.

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If you invested in mutual funds that track the Standard & Poor's 500 index, you'll probably finish with profit near 25 percent.

And although a lot of you, according to some surveys, consider that normal, it's actually extraordinary. So don't get used to it.

But the stock market has been so brilliant this year, with prices so high that many analysts considered it "priced for perfection" - in other words, rising on exaggerated expectations.

The market teetered in October, when the Asian angst augered an imperfect world, and some experts also see a slowdown ahead for American companies, regardless of what happens in Asia. And that spells caution for stocks in 1998. You might heed Guy Halverson's excellent inclinations on Page B7, and beef up the bonds or cash in your portfolio.

But back to 1997. Let's just say it was a year of stunning events - of WorldCom/MCI, the biggest double-cheese-merger-whopper of them all. Four of the biggest accounting firms to roam the earth decided to merge into two even bigger brutes. Several banks grew into an "extra large" suit size. A bunch of brokerage firms ballooned. The federal tax code got enormous. And China, the last truly powerful communist country, merged with Hong Kong, the freest financial market in the world. (Who swallowed whom remains to be seen.) Employment hit modern records in the United States, and inflation appears to have vamoosed. Wow.

But the curious element to the prosperous year in the US was the absence of a flash factor. Despite million-dollar bonuses on Wall Street, not many people have been flashing the cash.

Economists call it the "wealth effect," and its absence has been one of the odd defects of this blockbuster economy.

Cruise over to the Eric Evarts story. You'll see that people stayed cautious with their money in '97. They're far more interested in buying more time than spending more money.

Christmas presented the case in point. Despite a fully employed economy, rising wages, and falling rates, some of the expected shoppers forgot to hit the mall.

Sales of cars, a traditional big-ticket status item, have also fared poorly this year.

It could be that all the investment success has simply gone to retirement, not checking, accounts.

In any event, this doesn't have the feel of the "wretched excess" that one might expect at the end of such a spectacular bull run. We'll see.

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