The markets get a half-day, and so do we! But the Final Take never sleeps. Honestly, there are things more important than stocks and bonds and markets and goods and services. Whatever holiday you observe, please make it a safe and happy one. If nothing else, make what you can of these few moments each year when much of the world gets quiet.

For those of you who truly are essential: We thank you for the work you do, and our thoughts are with you.

How Now, Mad Cow?

A rather unappetizing pre-holiday surprise hit the wires late Tuesday as the first case of mad cow disease was identified in the U.S.

Burger bellwethers McDonald's(NYSE: MCD), rival Wendy's(NYSE: WEN), and other restaurant stocks lost ground as investors digested the news. It certainly puts a whole new spin on the idea of holiday madness.

McDonald's and Wendy's were both quick to point out that they do not use beef from the Washington-based supplier that produced the infected cow. The U.S. Dept. of Agriculture has said that it believes there is no danger to the food supply, though it plans to continue its investigation. However, in a preliminary press conference, the regulatory agency pointed out safeguards in place, including aggressive testing of cattle and the fact that the disease is not as highly contagious as many think.

Despite the assurances that this could be an isolated case and not a public health threat at all, many consumers will undoubtedly see this as an excuse to eschew the red meat. And it's been a banner year for beef, not unrelated to a diet called Atkins. Who hasn't seen people eating bunless burgers without shame? The USDA website cites the retail equivalent value of the beef industry at $65 billion.

Other restaurants that could suffer from the consumer's lack of appetite for beef include Outback Steakhouse(NYSE: OSI), LoneStar Steakhouse(Nasdaq: STAR), and RARE Hospitality(Nasdaq: RARE), although steaks and roasts are not believed to be culprits in transmitting what is formally known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) to humans.

McDonald's stock had already lost 8.6% in early-morning trading Wednesday, while Wendy's shed 4.4%. Investors shaved 7.3% off the share price of meat processor Tyson Foods(NYSE: TSN), but rival Smithfield(NYSE: SFD), mostly known for providing "the other white meat," got off easy, only losing 1.6%.

Analysts are seeing this as potentially a good opportunity to buy restaurant stocks. There's definitely some credence to that theory, and it certainly seems too soon to press the panic button based on such preliminary data. (They also pointed out that Asian countries' ban on the protein would lower restaurants' beef costs here at home.)

However, it's hard to ignore the risk. Public reaction is a big variable here, and despite government assurances, consumers will probably lay off the beef until it's certain there aren't more cases. It's not hard to imagine beef will fall out of fashion, at least for a while.

Discussion Board of the Day: Food

Do McDonald's and other restaurants sound a whole lot less appetizing to you now, in both the investing and dining sense? Do you plan on limiting your protein to chicken for a while, until this is straightened out? Chew on it on our Food discussion board.

Quote of Note

"Christmas, children, is not a date. It is a state of mind." -- Mary Ellen Chase

Early Christmas for CalAmp

Wireless and microwave communications equipment manufacturer California Amplifier(Nasdaq: CAMP) surged more than 40% today on news that its third-quarter earnings were up more than 200% over the same quarter last year. The company raised guidance for the next quarter up to $0.18 to $0.24 cents per share and announced the acquisition of privately held Vytek, for $78 million in stock.

All in all, that's a pretty substantial turnaround for CalAmp, which spent most of 2001 recovering from a one-two punch. First, its wireless Internet market -- led by a proposed deployment by Sprint(NYSE: FON) of CalAmp transmitters as customer premises equipment -- collapsed along with the rest of telecom. Then, CalAmp got socked when its CFO departed amid reports that the books had been cooked.

And they had been. CalAmp shares didn't trade for nearly three months while the company cleaned up the mess and made the necessary restatements of its results. CalAmp has tried to wipe most of the evidence of this sordid past from the record. A look at its press release on its web site shows stories going back as far as July 2001 -- after the company resumed trading.

It's been a long climb back, but with the capital markets opening up ever so slightly, CalAmp's position as a leading provider of customer premises for microwave is paying off. According to the company's conference call, accessed courtesy of CCBN, CalAmp's acquisition of Vytek adds a "substantial customer base," including Hewlett Packard(NYSE: HWP), Verizon(NYSE: VZ), Lexmark(NYSE: LXK), and Nokia(NYSE: NOK).

Most impressive, however, is the improvement of the company's cash position by more than $2 million, along with a substantial decrease in long-term debt from $12.5 million to $9.8 million. As always, we'll withhold final judgment on the quarter until we see the cash flow statement. And frankly, I'm not convinced that the capital telecommunications spending market is out of the woods.

But there should be no doubt that wireless Internet 802.11(b) adoption and demand at the consumer level has been one of the few bright spots. That's CalAmp's sweet spot, and it isn't so unreasonable to expect its renaissance to continue.

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And Finally...

Never one to avoid begging a good question, Bill Mann responds to a reader who asks whether he really believes in globalization. Check out the answer in Globalization: Do You Believe? Speaking of begging, life has a way of outdating even the best financial plan. Robert Brokamp helps you give your own finances a once-over. We're just kidding (we hope) about the begging part. Happy Holidays!

Contributors:
Bob Bobala, Robert Brokamp, Paul Elliott, Mathew Emmert, Jeff Fischer, Jeff Hwang, Tom Jacobs, LouAnn Lofton, Alyce Lomax, Bill Mann, Selena Maranjian, Dave Marino-Nachison, Rex Moore, Rick Munarriz, Reggie Santiago, Dayana Yochim