(NY Post's Columnist)
YOU probably can't hear Wall Street saying this, but I can: "Damn, why does this have to be a Leap Year!?"
And the annoyance is understandable.
It just so happens that the stock market is on pace - oh, so barely - for the first monthly gain in its major averages since last October.
And the darned calendar had to toss an extra day into February this year.
Right now the stock market is up 0.35 percent this month as measured by the Dow Jones industrial average.
But it has only been in the past half week that the Dow has moved into the black - in what is a very suspicious occurrence that I'll get to in a minute or so, depending on how fast I can type.
My advice to you: Beware!
In fact, double Beware!
The stock market's sudden euphoria this week smacks of the glad tidings that Wall Street was belching out at the end of 2007.
We all know how that turned out - the Santa Claus rally in stocks may have improved the bonuses of those on Wall Street, but it turned out to be a lot less merry for investors who unwittingly bought into the hype.
This week we had the February version of the Santa rally - the bulk of the disclosures on the economy are not just bad but awful, yet investment professionals are latching onto questionable good news to talk up stocks.
Beware! Beware! Just like in December, Wall Street looks like it is trying to gun the market higher so that it can, for a change, report a good monthly performance to its customers.
Let's rewind and look at how we got most of the February gain.
It all really started with a rally in the final minutes of trading last Friday, Feb. 22.
At that point stocks hadn't been doing much of anything for the month and were facing some impending bad news this week.
Late Friday afternoon, a rumor spread the Street that Ambac Financial Group, which is in trouble because it insures bonds that aren't doing so well, was thinking of splitting itself into two parts to preserve its credit rating.
After this was reported as a certainty by CNBC, the Dow index did a 225-point reversal to close up nearly 97 points.
Investors should always be wary of these final-minute rumors. They often smack of someone trying to manipulate stocks higher at a time of day when there is very little chance of refuting the "news."
Such was the case last Friday. Ambac has never announced a rescue plan and stocks - it turned out - rose for absolutely no reason. Still, the market never gave back the gains. But there was a little bit of genuine good news this week.
Credit rating agencies have looked foolish for their part in failing to see problems with insurers like Ambac and MBIA. Even so, this week the agencies reaffirmed the Triple-A ratings of these firms, though they left open the door to a downgrade later.
There have been plenty of rumors of bailouts by the government and banks. But little has actually happened - just like last December.
Oh yeah, there was one other thing that could be construed as good news.
IBM announced on Monday that it would begin a major share repurchase that can be seen either as good or bad news.
Does the computer giant think its stock is very attractive at current levels, or is it concerned that business prospects are so weak that only the trickery of a buyback will keep its per-share earnings at levels acceptable to Wall Street?
While the good news could be fit into a thimble, there was no shortage of bad things happening.
And as happened previously, Wall Street is choosing to squint when looking at it.
For instance, oil prices stayed over $100 a barrel even though there seems to be enough of the glop around. And that has sent gasoline prices sharply higher, even though there seems to be no shortage.
The rising price of oil and gasoline is horrible news for an economy that's already suffering.
Oil has become the new way for investors to keep their assets from being ravaged by inflation, which as a result is also going up sharply.
Meanwhile, the dollar continues to hit all-time lows against the euro because investors are afraid that the Federal Reserve is turning a blind eye to inflation in a desperate effort to get the economy growing.
Consumer confidence is at a five-year low. Home prices are declining steadily, even for those lucky enough to find a buyer. And the Fed is really in a tough spot - perhaps the toughest ever.
As I've been worrying would happen, the current economic downturn is not being helped by moves to lower interest rates.
In fact, Fed Governor Fred Mishkin said the other day that what the Fed is doing "might lead to higher, rather than lower, long- term" borrowing costs.
To sum this up in cliches - the Fed might be "pushing on a string" (getting nowhere) in its fight against stagflation (stagnant economy and rising inflation).
If you get the feeling that this isn't a very good time to buy stocks, you are probably right.
It's December, 2007. It's like the year 2000. And it's the next-to-last day of an extra-long February. Caveat!