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Ghost of Christmas Past

Here's a daunting, haunting thought - 10 percent.

It should be enough to send shudders surging through your basic baby boomers.

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This is not the annual notice of increase in college tuitions. Nor does it describe the new rate for that adjustable mortgage that seemed so cheap when you first got it.

It's not even, thank goodness, the estimated annual waistline impact from a meaningful appreciation for the subtle textures, aroma, and culinary complexity of chocolate.

If you know what I mean, and I think you do.

This awful number, this miserly 10 percent, may be the measure of the market for the entire year.

And that would come as a shock to the millions of boomers and other investor hopefuls who have vested their retirement hopes and ambitions with stocks and mutual funds.

Angle your eyebrows slightly to the right, and wander through Guy Halverson's story about about the shaky turf beneath the market.

Conditions aren't terrible, but they're not favorable either.

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And that brings us to last Christmas, when Wall Street's many mavens forecast a mediocre performance for the market in 1998.

Specifically - 10 percent was the popular figure at the time.

And that's a shocker.

We've grown accustomed to annual stock market gains that not only exceed 20 percent and approach 30 percent - even though the average over the years moves closer to 10 percent.

We gather in the office break room, sip hot beverages, munch the aforementioned chocolates, and consider how sweet it is that such gains will make us millionaires when the glorious golden years draw nigh.

Aren't we smart. Aren't we smug.

And justifiably so. That 10 percent number seemed Scrooge-like when it was delivered and a fool's forecast by April 1.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average had already climbed about 15 percent. Stretch that trend out over the year, and we're all calling the Love Boat to book that 'round the world cruise.

But alas, the Dow is now down a bit from its high, and Scrooge sounds less like Dickens and more like Einstein.

Of course, just because stocks tumbled a bit in recent weeks - from the Dow's high around 9200 to a recent low around 8800 - doesn't mean that signals the year's trend either. And the Dow put in a strong performance at the end of last week.

But 10 percent sounds a ring of truth.

As you'll see from Guy's story, the market has lots of reasons to correct - slow profit growth and inflationary pressures in America, troubles in Asia, troubles in Russia.

There's really only one big reason to believe stocks will go up. Big money.

People, the same ones who expect 20 percent annual returns, keep express mailing it to Wall Street, mostly through mutual funds. The inflow approaches $1 billion a day. At the same time, the record pace of corporate mergers takes more stock shares out of the market.

Shrinking supply, rising demand - all other things remaining equal, that should translate into higher prices.

And it might. Analysts call this a "liquidity driven" market, and it's a powerhouse.

But it also comes with an "off" switch. Investors can just as easily decide to stuff their billions into money-market funds, as some of the experts in Guy's story suggest, as in stocks.

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