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High hopes jostle with uncertainty

Walking around mid-town New York in December is always a chore. And the 15-block section of Fifth Avenue south of Central Park is the worst of the lot. Last year was no exception. Despite the creeping economic gloom of the past 15 months, despite the huge personal and economic costs to New York of the attacks on the World Trade Centre in September, there were still hordes of Christmas shoppers crowding the streets.

Inventory was certainly shifting. But the mood was a little different this time.

A closer look revealed that the sales were already on. In fashionable Manhattan 0% finance is available for many goods, a leather jacket that used to sell for $200 now costs you $69, or $99 for two. And a lot of sales are closing-down sales.

It's classic recession stuff. But the stock markets would tell you otherwise. The Nasdaq Composite and the Dow Jones Industrial Average are way above their lows of September 21 2001, convincing some that we're at the start of another bull market.

There is even evidence of another stock market bubble in the US. In November the S&P500 tech sector traded at a p/e ratio of 43.2%,

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