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It's really not 1999 all over again. Just check out Wednesday's modest reaction to the

upbeat comments from


(CSCO) - Get Cisco Systems, Inc. Report

CEO John Chambers.

But clearly it's not 2001 either. After all, market participants mostly glossed over the news of

alleged illegal mutual fund trading by a hedge fund, not to mention the start of

criminal proceedings against former


CEO Bernie Ebbers.

So it is with the U.S. stock market circa Sept. 3, 2003. Just as children come to look like themselves rather than resembling a parent, this tape continues to stake out its own identity. On Wednesday, it established another round of 52-week highs on a notable rise in volume from recent levels. However, the advance was quite choppy, with price action far less glowingly positive than during the prior session.

Initially, major averages appeared poised for another big advance, given the enthusiasm generated by Tuesday's

technical breakout, Chambers' comment about robust August orders, and better-than-expected earnings from




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Take-Two Interactive

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. Sell-side analysts piled on: Morgan Stanley upgraded


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, J.P. Morgan boosted

General Electric

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, Credit Suisse First Boston said helpful things about infrastructure software makers and UBS added hopeful words on semiconductors.


General Motors

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offered some positive comments about the economy (as did the Fed's Beige Book), while

Caremark RX's


near $6 billion buyout offer for



generated excitement on Wall Street about more M&A activity, and the accompanying fees.

But after trading as high as 9597.38 at about 2:30 p.m. EDT, the

Dow Jones Industrial Average

struggled before closing up 0.5% to 9568.46. Following similar patterns, the

S&P 500

gained 0.4% to 1026.27 vs. an intraday best of 1029.34, while the

Nasdaq Composite

rose 0.6% to 1852.90 after trading as high as 1863.60.

At 1.65 billion shares on the Big Board and 2.3 billion in over-the-counter trading, volume was the most robust in recent memory. Advancers bested declining stocks by 20 to 11 on the NYSE and 18 to 13 on the Nasdaq, while new 52-week highs overwhelmed new lows by about 500 to 6 in both venues.

"I'm pleasantly surprised the volume is so high -- I wasn't looking for this week to be much of anything coming off the long weekend," said Bob Basel, director of listed trading at Smith Barney. "It's hard to draw conclusions off one day, but it feels like people are saying, 'Summer's over, let's get back to business and get the action going.'"

As Basel noted, most of the action has been to the buy side, although not overwhelmingly so on this day. Up volume was 62.5% of the Big Board total and just under 70% of Nasdaq action.

Tape Fighters Stay Hogtied

Although major averages couldn't sustain their intraday heights, optimists were heartened that shares could build on Tuesday's advance in any fashion. Skeptics noted the market's ultimate lack of oomph as well as a weaker-than-expected July construction spending report. Also drawing mention was a steep decline in August sales at


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, albeit amid better-than-expected sales for the auto industry overall.

Lost in the excitement over Chambers' comments and a 3.4% gain by


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, semiconductor stocks were notable laggards for a second consecutive session. While the Merrill Lynch Hi-Tech 100 rose 0.6% to a 52-week high, the Philadelphia Stock Exchange Semiconductor Index slid 2.7%.

Given that semiconductors are considered leading indicators of IT spending trends, and thus often harbingers of tech stock activity, their recent weakness might suggest it's getting late in the investing cycle -- even if any actual spending increase is in the early stages yet.

"The SOX clearly ran into a brick wall this morning -- it did seem like there was some profit-taking in semis," said Timothy Heekin, director of trading at Thomas Weisel Partners in San Francisco. "The market overall feels a little toppy. I know you had great volume but also late-day reversals in the

Nasdaq 100 and earlier in the SOX. It does concern me."

After trading as high as 1375.30, the NDX ended off 0.1% at 1360.20.

"I think we're at a really interesting inflection point," Heekin continued. "Either we're poised to go significantly higher, like 50 S&P

points, or slowly retrace for a while and go down 30 to 50."

Citing evidence of "capitulation by some shorts" in the past two days, growth accounts "chasing names that have done well," and a "really big overhang of corporate issuance" -- both IPOs and secondaries -- beginning next week, the trader's bias is toward "a little pullback before we go higher."

Listening to This Tape

But bearish concerns are largely falling on deaf ears these days. Furthermore, the naysayers' ranks are shrinking. Bearish sentiment fell to 18.2% from 19% in's

Investors Intelligence

survey, while bullish sentiment dipped to 55.5% from 56% the prior week.

"Sentiment and seasonal factors remain a concern, but the tape suggests that such concerns should be viewed secondarily," commented Jeffrey deGraaf, chief technical analyst at Lehman Brothers. "If the market is setting a trap, then ... the breakout will fail. That would be a better tactical signal for impending weakness instead of fighting the tape in our opinion."

Indeed, those fighting the tape have been facing an uphill battle of late, certainly since the March lows. At some point that will no longer be the case, but myriad forecasts of an impending reversal have proven to be premature, at best.

Aaron L. Task writes daily for In keeping with TSC's editorial policy, he doesn't own or short individual stocks, although he owns stock in He also doesn't invest in hedge funds or other private investment partnerships. He invites you to send your feedback to

Aaron L. Task.