Editor's Note: Jon D. Markman writes a weekly column for CNBC on MSN Money that is republished here on TheStreet.com.


First they assassinate the generals. Then the colonels. Then they lure the captains and foot patrols into a trap and slaughter them en masse. And finally, they grab some pretzels, pop open a beer and light a cigarette.

No, that's not a secret Pentagon war plan. It's the typical game plan for a "secular," or long-term, bear market -- which is what a lot of prominent market forecasters believe we have been experiencing, off and on, since 2000.

With the broad market averages at four-year highs, this might seem like a very odd time to bring it up. But in the interest of public-service financial journalism, I feel obligated to let you know -- during the week that marks the six-year anniversary of Nasdaq 5000 -- that this view is advancing in popularity among much of the Wall Street intelligentsia.

When you are laying out your investment game plan for the year, it helps to know what your enemy may be thinking -- or how you should act if you happen to share their views. And right now, they're shunning growth companies and sticking to the safe stocks of foodmakers, brewers and tobacco companies.

A Discriminating Bull

Did I say enemy? It's an unfortunate fact of life that the stock market is not an "I'm OK, you're OK" kind of place. It is not a team sport. With a finite number of shares available at any given time, not counting derivatives, you can win only if someone else loses. If you want to win in the long term, you need to understand the schemes and dreams of your opponent.

The first thing you need to know is that bears are crafty and lay out elaborate long-range plans. A key element of their approach was to knock off the 1982-2000 bull-market leadership, and then make believe it never happened.

This occurred when growth commanders Microsoft ( MSFT), Dell ( DELL), Yahoo! ( YHOO) and Intel ( INTC) were cut down in their prime six years ago. Despite the market hitting highs of late, they are still down 44%, 48%, 68% and 71%, respectively, from 2000 levels.

So don't let anyone con you into believing the market is in two-horned bull mode, even today, just because the small-caps and mid-caps have done well. Until the big-cap growth leaders arise from their death chambers, the bears boast, the recent two-year rally is just a head-fake in a bigger campaign.

The latest step in their war of attrition, say the bears, came with the broad-daylight assassinations of twin colonels Apple Computer ( AAPL) and Google ( GOOG). I warned you near their highs in the second week of this year that this might be coming, and I hope you paid attention.

Both are down 25% since mid-January, even as the Nasdaq Composite has advanced rather smartly, so their demise has been covered up by mid-cap platoon captains such as Broadcom ( BRCM) and Network Appliance ( NTAP).

It's important to note that Apple and Google -- which could revive at any time, like cats with nine lives -- were cut down amid a chorus of good news, not bad. Apple had just announced the sale of its one zillionth iPod, and Google's shares were rising so fast there was word it could have to add another zero to its name. Thwarting strong companies on good news is just the sort of sneaky tactic that the bears employ, as they need bubbly trading volume in which to unload their own shares, or to sell short (short-sellers borrow shares and sell them, in hopes of buying them back later at a lower price).

Beer, Gum and Chewing Tobacco

And now, finally, we may be witnessing the third step in the progression of a tilt from bull to bear. The shares of dreary old consumer-staples makers are rising like the equity equivalent of Lord Voldemort from their own five-year hibernations.

These stocks are termed "defensive" by the market-cliche handbook, as they are purchased by portfolio managers who need to own stocks but believe it is not the right time to play offense. They buy the makers of food, toothpaste, beer, cigarettes and drugs because they think their earnings growth will be safe, if far from spectacular.

Evidence of this evolution has come with the revival of stocks such as brewer Anheuser-Busch ( BUD), grain giant Archer Daniels Midland ( ADM), ketchup king H.J. Heinz ( HNZ), cracker cooker Kraft Foods ( KFT), candy makers Wm. Wrigley Jr. ( WWY) and Hershey ( HSY), soda seller Coca-Cola ( KO) and snuffmaker UST ( UST).

These are exactly the kinds of stocks that move to the fore at the start of a bear market as portfolio managers stock their bomb shelters with companies that will be harmed least by a slowdown in consumer spending.

Anheuser-Busch is particularly appealing, in part because it played this role so beautifully in the millennial bear market, doubling from a multiyear low of $26 in March of 2000 to $53 in October 2002. It could happen again, you know. The company has aroused from a disastrous 2004-2005 with terrific new marketing campaigns, smart acquisitions and a strong push internationally.

Notable on the import front are its decision to promote the great Dutch beer Grolsch and the Singapore beer Tiger in the U.S., along with the Chinese beer Tsingtao, in which it owns a stake. If Anheuser-Busch can achieve 4% to 6% earnings growth over the rest of the year, and up to 10% next year, it will attract many more investors.

Wrigley, like Bud, hit a multiyear low in March 2000 in the mid-$20s. The difference is that Wrigley kept rallying, almost tripling to $73.75 before the November 2005 rally got started. The Chicago-based chewing-gum maker then sank for five straight months as the S&P rallied hard. But now Wrigley has regained its footing.

The big story to watch here is how quickly and effectively Wrigley leverages its pricey acquisition of the Altoids mints and Life Savers candy brands from Kraft. A visit to the drugstore candy racks shows that, from a merchandising point of view, the merger appears to be going well. Altoids and Life Savers are showing up in new forms and flavors, such as sour-apple gum.

Wrigley is very focused on expanding its reach internationally -- particularly in China and India -- so investments in new plants and marketing are affecting margins. But I suspect Wrigley is set for a new leg of growth over the next year, which investors will reward by sending shares toward their high.

Hershey is another stock that revived from a multiyear low in March 2000. It went on to more than triple to an all-time high in early 2005. Hershey's slide since has been the result in part of a historic rise in the price of sugar and cocoa, but also just a shrug from investors who figured they could get more growth for less money in industrial metals, tech and energy. There's also been an overhang of concern that the Hershey family trust would not take the steps necessary to boost the share price, such as considering a merger or laying off workers.

Now that the broader market's tide has turned toward the prospects for moderately lower consumer spending, however, the prospects for Hershey have brightened, and the stock has a good shot at a 15% to 20% rally.

In short, even if you don't think that a bear is growling at the door, there are ample reasons to start stocking the larder with the shares of food and beverage makers. With their prices, expectations and valuations near historic lows, they could fatten up your portfolio by the end of the year.

At the time of publication, Markman was long Microsoft, Dell and Broadcom, and he plans to buy shares of Wrigley and Budweiser, although positions may change at any time.

Jon D. Markman is editor of the independent investment newsletter The Daily Advantage. While Markman cannot provide personalized investment advice or recommendations, he appreciates your feedback; click here to send him an email.

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