Merrill Lynch ( MER) investors need something to get excited about. In the first three weeks of 2005, Merrill's stock has given back all of its 3% gain from last year and then some. The stock closed Friday just under $57. Worse, Merrill's shares lagged well behind most of its competitors in 2004 and the Amex Securities Broker/Dealer Index, which rose 15%. The only big brokerage stock to fare worse than Merrill was Morgan Stanley ( MWD), which ended the year essentially unchanged. But Merrill fans might get their shot in the arm Tuesday when the brokerage reports fourth-quarter earnings. That is if they can look beyond the messy headline number and focus on the brokerage's prospects for 2005 -- assuming the economy doesn't falter. On the surface, Merrill's earnings will be nothing to cheer about. The Thomson Financial consensus estimate has profits per share down about 10% to $1.10, compared with $1.23 in the year-ago quarter. But Wall Street is expecting a rebound at Merrill in 2005, as economic trends play to the brokerage's advantage. The full-year consensus has earnings rising 11% to $4.79 a share. By contrast, Wall Street analysts expect full-year earnings in 2005 to decline slightly at Bear Stearns ( BSC), Goldman Sachs ( GS) and Lehman Brothers ( LEH), compared with last year. Like Merrill, Morgan Stanley also is expected to buck the downward trend. The catalyst for a reversal of fortune may be that more money is seen going into stocks than bonds this year, with interest rates expected to rise further. Rising interest rates means bond trading and debt underwriting, two big profit centers for much of Wall Street last year, will not be as lucrative in 2005. That's bad news for bond powerhouses like Bear Stearns and Lehman. But for Merrill, which has never been a premier player in the bond market, any slowdown in the debt markets is seen as a manageable event.