Not so excellent news for actor Ben Curtis. Today, Dell Computer(Nasdaq: DELL)announced its smart-aleck spokesman, Steven, will be "taking a break" for an indefinite period of time as the company pursues new advertising alternatives. Seems that despite producing increased sales, the two-year campaign started to annoy Dell execs as well. Dude, you're so fired.

After 4% to 5% gains across the board yesterday, the major market indexes were beaten back today, with the Nasdaq losing nearly 4% and the FOOL 50 dropping 2.5%.

In today's Motley Fool Take:

Economy Reacts to D.C. Sniper

Sniper attacks killing nine people and critically wounding two others in the Washington, D.C., metro area are taking a toll both on our psyches and the economy.

Fallout from the attacks has had a ripple effect on the Mid-Atlantic region, beginning with lower sales at suburban gas stations and retail stores and carrying through to tourism and agriculture. According to The Washington Post, stores in Montgomery County, Md., report a 50% drop in sales. Tour companies report scores of groups have canceled trips to Washington. Pennsylvania-based Martz Group, which runs tours in the District, said its Cheverly office lost an estimated $100,000 worth of business in the past two weeks.

"It's one of the busiest times of year for the tourism industry in the D.C. area," William A. Hanbury, president and chief executive of the Washington Convention and Tourism Corp., told The Washington Post. "And as we go forward, if he's not caught, this will have more of an impact."

Farmers return home with unsold pumpkins, less than two weeks before Halloween. Giant Foods reports a jump in grocery deliveries. Michaels(NYSE: MIK), its stores in the vicinity of three shootings, has moved sidewalk displays inside. Consumers, fearing a link between the shootings and the crafts chain, are avoiding other Michaels locations as well. Homecomings and football games, canceled. Outdoor recess, now indoors.

Guess who's benefited? The media. From Oct. 2 through Oct. 13, cable news channel ratings saw double-digit increases from last month, according to the New York Post. CNN's audience grew 14%, and MSNBC's jumped 21%.

Ex-military sniper? Al Qaeda? Home-grown serial killer? No one knows. But for now, and probably until the killer's caught, local residents will be doing their shopping from home.

Normally, we say hunker down during difficult economic times, because they're usually short term. Even take advantage of them, if you can. But this is different. We share the fear and anger on a daily basis, every time we see a white van or pump gas in the Fool's neighborhood, Alexandria, Va. Be safe.

Intel Crashes the Party

Hey, Intel(Nasdaq: INTC), go shake your groove thing somewhere else! Here we were, partying like it was 1999, as Citigroup(NYSE: C) and General Motors(NYSE: GM) hit third-quarter profits out of Projection Park. Nice! Then you show up in this Grim Reaper get-up, talking all crazy about missing your bottom-line targets and waxing pessimistic on the holiday season that lies ahead.

You must've RSVP'd for the Party Pooper Ball on accident. Heck, no one even invited Motorola(NYSE: MOT) to this bash, but it still managed to shake six quarters of losses to show up and deliver the goods. Motorola, man! We were going over the party list the other day....

"Hey, do we want to invite Motorola?"

"No way, dude. You don't want that kind of gloom and doom infecting our rally fest."

But, sure enough, it shows up, carrying the bundt cake of profitability.

Now Intel says it's expecting no more than 6% in sequential revenue improvement from the third-quarter's $6.5 billion showing. In short, there's no way the fourth quarter will come close to the $6.98 billion posted in last year's final fiscal period. You've got more misses than a sorority house, Intel!

That just hurts, bud. Weren't we friends? And what's this about cutting your capital spending budget? Hungry industry mouths were banking on that trickle down. Does Applied Materials(Nasdaq: AMAT) know yet?

Let's just call this party off and send everybody home. We asked you to bring the chips, and instead you brought the dip.

Quote of Note

"Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgment that something else is more important than fear." -- Ambrose Redmoon (1933-1996), writer and rock band manager

Not Your Grandma's Utility Fund

Conventional wisdom has long held that the risk-averse and income-seekers, such as your grandma (or you!), should plop their pfennigs into utility stocks and utility mutual funds. Conventional wisdom has changed.

The utility industry used to be a fairly sleepy one. Its companies were heavily regulated and tended to sport stable income streams that paid out regular (and often hefty) dividends. In recent years, though, things are different. The industry is more dynamic, less regulated, and riskier (think Enron). As companies jockey for competitive advantage and aim to grow, their focus is no longer steady maintenance or reliable dividend payments.

An article in The Houston Chronicle explains that since deregulation began in the '90s:

Many telephone and electric companies lost their monopolies, and branched out into riskier ventures, such as electricity trading and high-speed Internet access. In the process, many took on debt and trimmed dividends.... So far this year, [utility] funds lost an average of 29.2%, according to fund-tracker Lipper. Over three years, utilities funds averaged a loss of 12%... Total assets in utilities funds through August dropped to $13.7 billion, down from $20.4 billion at the end of 2001.

This change in the utility landscape has got some mutual fund companies concerned, partly due to the poor performance of their funds focused on utilities. Take Vanguard, for example, which happens to be the country's No. 2 fund company. It's planning to transform its "Vanguard Utilities Income Fund" to the "Vanguard Dividend Growth Fund," giving the renamed entity a much broader scope and a better chance of serving investors well by seeking the most solid and promising dividend-paying investments -- both within and outside the utility industry. Strong Funds did the same thing last year (while also increasing its management fee for the renamed fund).

The bottom line is not that everyone should now avoid utilities. Instead, understand the new environment and have realistic expectations. For some of us, there should still be a place in our portfolios for utilities. As this USA Todayarticle points out, "... the juicy dividend yields that utilities offer are probably the best argument for utilities now." As always, learn more before taking action.

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Harley's Hog Heaven

You've got to hand it to Harley-Davidson(NYSE: HDI). The motorcycle maker is such a nonconformist that it blew past Wall Street's profit targets.

Sure, Harley's always left analysts in the dust: It topped projections each of the last five quarters. But this time, it really smoked 'em.

With consensus estimates pegged at $0.46 a share, Harley saw its bottom line grow by 46% to hit earnings of $0.54 a share. Revenue growth strapped on its helmet and went along for the ride -- soaring 32% to $1.1 billion.

With General Motors(NYSE: GM) beating the Street yesterday, it seems consumers aren't shying away from big-ticket purchases. But Harley also had its brisk-selling line of special edition motorcycles to commemorate the company's 100th anniversary. That's a long time. Ford(NYSE: F) also blows out a hundred birthday candles this year, but not with the same gusto.

Harley is an icon. It's a legend. The Ford Mustang? Not anymore.

Harley never lost its edge. While most fans of alternative music will bad-mouth a band when it achieves mainstream commercial success, it's still cool to make an annual trek to Sturgis, or to get decked out in Harley gear and accessories, no matter how popular Harley gets. The centennial merchandise is a hot seller, as apparel and collectibles rose by a smart 88% during the quarter.

So Harley revs on. It plans to produce 289,000 motorcycles next year and will churn out 263,000 units this year. As long as demand holds up (and it always seems to when it comes to Harley), it should be an open road for the Milwaukee-based icon.

But maybe the stock is due for a breather. After all, while centennial goodies fly out the door, there's not much marketing power in anniversary 101. This isn't necessarily a bad thing. Even the most impressive of rides has to stop and refuel sometimes.

Discussion Board of the Day: Harley-Davidson

Be honest. Haven't you always wanted a Harley? Look at you, now. Blushing and shaking your head. But what about Harley stock? Do you need to don a crash helmet to buy into the company as well? All this and more -- in the Harley-Davidson discussion board. Only on

Quick Takes

Coca-Cola's (NYSE: KO) third-quarter profit rose 8% from the prior-year period, but it warned that it might slightly miss full-year earnings targets. "We have not yet seen the improvements in macroeconomic conditions that we anticipated when we set our earnings objectives at the beginning of 2002," said CEO Doug Daft.

Citing "the severe and continuing downturn in the company's commercial markets, principally commercial aviation," Boeing(NYSE: BA) reported a 47% drop in third-quarter earnings and warned of lower revenue, margins, and free cash flow in 2003.

In banking earnings news, J.P. Morgan Chase(NYSE: JPM) saw a 72% drop in pro forma operating earnings and said it would cut about 2,000 jobs in its investment-banking division.... Merrill Lynch(NYSE: MER) fared better, with a 22% increase in profit despite lower revenue. Much of the profit was attributable to heavy cost-cutting moves.... Capital One Financial(NYSE: COF) saw a 43% increase in revenue and a 51% jump in earnings. Shares fell 20%, however, as the credit card issuer hinted of slower growth next quarter.

Ford (NYSE: F) topped earnings estimates, but Standard & Poor's said it might have to cut the auto maker's credit rating by a notch due to "concerns about the adequacy of restructuring measures."

It's been quite a day at Dynegy(NYSE: DYN). The Houston company said it will exit the energy-trading business, significantly reduce its workforce of 5,500, and accept the resignation of President Steve Bergstrom.

And Finally...

Today on Rex Moore tells investment banks he wouldn't miss analysts a bit.... Like the SEC, Bill Mann wants more info from Schering-Plough.... In Fool's School, is technical analysis useful, and how does it differ from fundamental analysis?... Military members of the Fool Community weigh in on the D.C. shooter.... And the Post of the Day: Cisco Systems.

Bob Bobala, Robert Brokamp, Tom Jacobs, LouAnn Lofton, Bill Mann, Selena Maranjian, Rex Moore, Rick Munarriz, Matt Richey, Jackie Ross, Reggie Santiago, Dayana Yochim