You wouldn't guess its tortuous course from a glance at the closing figures, but the

Nasdaq Composite Index rocked and rolled its way to a strong finish that was by no means assured at the opening bell.

After opening in negative territory, the Comp broke out into the green, dipped briefly and then moved steadily higher. The schizophrenic action in tech reflected investors' mixed feelings as earnings warnings and a much-hoped for end to the selling continued to duke it out.

Tech stocks opened higher Monday and Tuesday only to fall back and finish those days mired in red. Today, it was the opposite of that, but it's anyone's guess whether the gains will continue tomorrow -- especially in light of a postclose earnings warning from mighty PC maker

Dell

(DELL) - Get Report

.

Dell said it third-quarter revenue is trending 3% below its expectations, although it expects to meet third-quarter profit estimates. The company said its fourth-quarter earnings could be a penny or two short of per-share estimates.

The

Dow Jones Industrial Average had a much easier time of it than did the Nasdaq, as investors flocked to defensive issues in the midst of the earnings warnings storm.

Home Depot

(HD) - Get Report

and

International Paper

(IP) - Get Report

were strong components.

The Dow's top point gainer was a tech one, with

IBM

(IBM) - Get Report

hopping $4.06, or 3.7%, to $114.58, adding 24 points to the index.

Ray Hawkins, vice president of block trading at

J.P. Morgan

, said it was encouraging to see a rally in the Comp. In the past, people were overly enthusiastic about tech stocks, he said, but in the last couple of days he had been hearing the other side of the extreme -- as people said they didn't want to touch tech stocks again.

"When I saw

Goldman Sachs

market strategist Abby Joseph Cohen's comments on tech stocks yesterday, I thought it was a good sign," Hawkins said.

But it wasn't only the comments that boosted the Comp. Optimism over

Micron Technology's

(MU) - Get Report

earnings -- to be released after the close -- helped the semiconductor sector and the Nasdaq, as many of those semis are listed there. The

Philadelphia Stock Exchange Semiconductor Index

was lately up 6.4%.

Elsewhere,

Oplink Communications

(OPLK)

rocketed in its debut, gaining $15.63, or 86.8%, to $33.63.

But pressure from software companies such as

Oracle

(ORCL) - Get Report

-- which was hurt by

Computer Associates'

(CA) - Get Report

earnings warning last night and a downgrade this morning -- as well as market-maker brokerage

Knight

(NITE)

-- which warned this morning that it would miss earnings estimates -- put pressure on the Nasdaq during today's session.

TheStreet.com

wrote a separate

story about Knight.

Financials failed to get a pop despite news of another big merger in the sector. This morning,

Firstar

agreed to buy

U.S. Bancorp

(USB) - Get Report

in a $21.2 billion stock deal. Firstar skidded $2.25, or 10.1%, to $20, while U.S. Bancorp gained $1.81, or 7.8%, to $25.

The

Philadelphia Stock Exchange/KBW Bank Index

slipped 1.9%, while the

American Stock Exchange Broker/Dealer Index

slid 1.5%.

Meanwhile,

Boeing

(BA) - Get Report

rebounded after announcing a partnership with

BFGoodrich

(GR)

to develop a passenger-to-freighter conversion program for its 737 jetliner. The airplane-maker's stock was recently sold off when it lost an important contract to competitor

Airbus

in Singapore.

Elsewhere, medical-equipment manufacturer

Guidant

(GDT)

and e-business company

Calico Commerce

(CLIC)

also warned about earnings overnight. Guidant plunged 16.2%, while Calico collapsed by 31.3%.

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Sector Watch

Transport, cyclical and paper stocks had a sunny day, even though it was a grayish day on Wall Street. Energy stocks failed to live up to their name and lagged.

The

Dow Jones Transportation Average

advanced 2.5%, lifted by airline stocks for a second day in a row, which in turn boosted the

American Stock Exchange Airline Index

2.4%.

Delta

(DAL) - Get Report

was adding about 12 points to the transport index's average.

The

Morgan Stanley Cyclical Index

rose 1.7%, while the

Philadelphia Stock Exchange Forest & Paper Products Index

jumped 2.8%. Shared components

Georgia-Pacific

(GP)

and

International Paper

(IP) - Get Report

were both up.

Pick an energy sector, any energy sector -- they were all down, including the

American Stock Exchange Natural Gas Index

, off 2.2%, the

Chicago Board Options Exchange Oil Index

, down 2%, and the

Philadelphia Stock Exchange Oil Service Index

, 4.2% lower.

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Bonds/Economy

Treasuries were mixed on little news, as the focus shifted from yesterday's

Federal Open Market Committee meeting to September's

employment report due out Friday. In keeping with the Fed's aggressive stance on interest rates, short-maturity issues are faring worse than long-maturity ones. There were no major economic reports today.

In deciding to keep the

fed funds rate at 6.5% but also saying that the economy is still at risk of rising inflation, the FOMC

cited the high rate of labor-force utilization -- a.k.a., the low

augmented unemployment rate -- as one of the major reasons why. The September jobs report will measure that rate anew. In August it stood at 6.9%, just off its all-time low (since the Labor Department began measuring it in 1994) of 6.8% in June.

The benchmark 10-year

Treasury note fell 7/32 to 98 30/32, lifting its yield to 5.890%.

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