With sparkling earnings reports pouring in from Alcoa (NYSE: AA), Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL), Amazon.com (Nasdaq: AMZN), and several other stocks whose names don't begin with the letter 'A', investors are rightly ebullient about the market's performance this earnings season. Yet with the Dow firmly above 11,000, and approaching its most recent high in the lower 11's, could this rally be too good to be true?

Apparently, we're not the only ones asking this unpopular question.


On Oct. 8, The Conference Board published its latest quarterly update on CEOs' confidence in the strength of the U.S. economy. After holding steady for six straight months, the confidence of America's corporate leaders fell off a cliff this quarter -- even as these same CEOs were preparing to report what appear to be, by any measure, exceptionally strong quarterly results. At an index reading of "50," CEOs are now evenly divided on whether the economy's ready to revive, or dip back into recession.

Six on one hand, half a dozen on the other
A 50-50 chance doesn't sound so bad, right? After all, America's investment bankers make a pretty good living off that kind of accuracy. But closer examination reveals that the news is worse than the headline suggests. At a confidence level of 50, CEOs are more worried about the fate of the U.S. economy than at any time since Q1 2009 -- the very depths of the Great Recession. And according to the Conference Board, a 50 reading means that just 22% of the CEOs surveyed predicted that economic conditions will improve over the next six months.

Foolish final thought
The news isn't all bad. The survey does note that three execs out of 10 now plan to increase capital spending, an increase from a year ago. That helps explain the surprisingly strong results out of Intel (Nasdaq: INTC). It may give hope to Applied Materials (Nasdaq: AMAT) investors, since that company depends on chip revs to drive its own chip-manufacturing equipment sales. On the other hand, "three out of 10" is hardly a majority. And it may explain why one of the biggest black marks on General Electric's (NYSE: GE) recent earnings report was its admission of a drop in equipment sales.

CEOs' lack of confidence also suggests that this current rally may not be what it seems.

At least, that's my take on the above chart. But maybe you see something different? Take the Foolish Rorschach test. Tell us about it below.

Intel is a Motley Fool Inside Value recommendation. Apple and Amazon.com are Motley Fool Stock Advisor choices. Motley Fool Options has recommended buying calls on Intel. The Fool owns shares of Apple and Intel.

Fool contributor Rich Smith does not own shares of any company named above. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.