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A Smarter Way to Spot Winning Stocks

Editor's Note: Jon D. Markman writes a weekly column for CNBC on MSN Money that is republished here on . He's also a regular contributor to RealMoney ,'s subscription site. If you'd like to see all of Jon Markman's RealMoney commentary, click here for information about a free trial.

Investing would be so easy if only it were about events that happen as expected. The problem is that most important moves in the market are unexpected, deviate from norms and cannot be counted in conventional ways.

This is always a bummer, but particularly so now, as investors try to determine whether the zippy early-November bounce is the start of an exciting new charge higher or a pointless countertrend rally doomed to fail.

The usual ways of making this determination -- via forecasts for earnings and global economic growth -- don't seem to be working right now, and new research says they never did. So rather than rely on those, we'll turn to the views of market veterans who focus simply on the demand for stocks.

First, let me explain why the old ways don't work.

Earnings Up, Stocks Down

Let's say that you knew without doubt that the economy would grow at a 3.5% annualized pace and corporate earnings would grow 16%. Wouldn't that make you bullish on equities over the next year?

Well, that's pretty much what 2005 looks like, and the market is flat. Maybe with a year-end rally, the market can end with a gain of 5% or so. But that's a far cry from the 15%-plus earnings growth rate of the nation's leading companies.

This set of facts backs the view that past and predicted earnings may not matter as much as many think. They certainly haven't so far this year for American Express (AXP), IBM (IBM), Wal-Mart Stores (WMT), Walt Disney (DIS) and Alcoa (AA). Each has reported earnings growth of 11% to 75% in the past 12 months. And analysts expect them to earn from 9.5% to 23% over the next year. Yet the shares of these five stalwart members of the Dow Jones Industrials are down from 9.5% to 19.8% this year.

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