Why the Markets Are as Jittery as Jell-O

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After a month of pre-announcements, preemptive strikes, and plenty of nail-biting over oil prices and the euro — a month that's hacked away nearly a fifth of the NASDAQ index's value — the third-quarter earnings season finally comes to Wall Street. After Monday's Yom Kippur/Columbus Day wasteland, in which a middling-to-down day showed signs of life in stocks like day-trader favorites Juniper and JDS Uniphase but a sort of languid absenteeism in almost everything else, investors will get a chance starting Tuesday to place their bets.

Yahoo. After the end-of-session bell, the tech bellwether is expected by some to disappoint with its earnings report, thanks to a slowdown in the dot-com advertising sector. (Less new dot-coms these days, which means less new dot-com ad men bidding for space on prime-time portal Yahoo.) If Yahoo — which is unveiling some new voice-based services (read: potential revenue streams) Tuesday afternoon, possibly as a means of softening the blow for the earnings news — can please the Street, good vibrations for the dot-commerce sector could follow. If Yahoo disappoints, it's one more reason to sell everything else Internet.

The tech market is in a curious sort of psychological Catch-22 these days: Investors are waiting for things to calm down, and it's making them very nervous. Most forecasters look ahead to November or December as a time of some calm and clarity. The Fed will have a clearer picture of the economic soft-landing/slowdown. The nation will have a new president-elect unburdened by campaign-specific rhetoric. And this blasted earnings season will be over.

But in October, it's only just begun. Investors know why they're anxious: High oil prices and high interest rates make Europe a dull boy — one who doesn't buy as many Macs, Dells, Gateways or the chips that go into them as those companies and their investors are used to. There's fretting about the U.S. slowdown being too slow and too down, and whether a tightening Greenspan got ambushed by crude-oil prices.

The good scenario is that the waiting is the hardest part; that all the corporate warning shots that have made the last month so hellish have already been fired. If there was really bad news out there, goes the reasoning, they would have warned us like Intel did. The bad scenario is that, well, they didn't. And that six months after those high-flyers like Yahoo, Amazon, Cisco, AOL got shot down in April and for the most part stayed down, there's still a whole lot of shakin' out to do.