Putting lipstick on a bear

The Dow Jones average is swimming down around 6,800 today, hitting a new 12-year low. If in a basic sense the stock market represents a rough overall valuation of the U.S. economy, then the U.S. economy is now worth less than it was in April of 1997. Whether that’s realistic I have no idea, but either way it seems a rather stunning measure.

In recent days, by way of working on a forthcoming magazine article, I’ve been taking in a sizable dose of CNBC, the ubiquitous financial news network. The channel is watched obsessively by most on Wall Street (I saw this firsthand on a recent reporting trip to the New York Stock Exchange and surrounds), and its constant chatter can be found in airport lounges, urban corner stores and no doubt the many living rooms of America’s investor class. The personalities hosting CNBC’s various shows do produce substantive reporting on the financial world daily, but much of the air time is filled with infotainment, emphasis on tainment. In addition to the usual stream of industry banter and speculative investing ideas, these days there’s no shortage of finger-pointing commentary about the policy maneuvers of the Obama administration.

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Still, you can’t run a popular cable network on a steady drip of downer, so today the hosts of CNBC’s “Power Lunch” have been trying their darn best to dress up another ugly day on Wall Street. Courtesy of their “smart strategies special,” cue the segment: Three ways to make money in value stocks!

“Apparently there are more value stocks out there than ever,” announces Sue Herera, preparing to welcome two money managers who’ll offer favored picks.

“Value stocks are being created right now,” declares a smiling Bill Griffith, glancing sidelong at the sinking averages.

Good luck, folks. As James Grant noted in a sobering roundup of financial experts in yesterday’s Times, the truth about vicious bear markets is that they end when investors finally give up hope. “Hope sustains life,” Grant writes, “but misplaced hope prolongs recessions.”

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