According to U.K. Internet service provider Freeserve, the start of hostilities with Iraq has bumped "Britney Spears" and "sex" from its list of most popular search terms, with "war" taking the top spot. Google has yet to report its U.S. data, but it's a safe bet that "war" made it past "NCAA tournament" and "Joe Millionaire."

The markets rallied today as the U.S. began its "shock and awe" bombing against Iraq, with the Dow closing up almost 3%, the Naz up 1%, and the S&P up 2%.

In today's Motley Fool Take:

Quote of Note

"The real and lasting victories are those of peace, and not of war." -- Ralph Waldo Emerson

Taxing Times for Intuit

It should be the company's time to shine, yet these are taxing times for Intuit(Nasdaq: INTU).

As next month's tax deadline approaches, folks are firing up the company's software programs, including TurboTax, Quicken, and the QuickBooks suite of small-business accounting tools. But last night, the financial software powerhouse warned it would close out fiscal 2003 on the low end of projected growth ranges. Intuit expects to earn at least $1.30 a share this year on revenue growth of no less than 25%, but that's not good enough for Wall Street. The stock got slammed at the open.

What's the problem? The last few weeks have been rough, and all of the company's key product lines are feeling the slowdown.

Intuit's model has been changing lately. The company cashed out of its subsidiary in Japan, and it has been more aggressive in selling its wares directly to the end user over traditional retail channels. Transitions alone often test any company's predictions, as new variables enter the picture, but Intuit also has to deal with the fickle ways of the consumer.

The major driver in its April quarter is TurboTax, and Intuit is scratching its head over the slow start. Whether it's the struggling economy, the lack of meaty refunds now that paycheck withholding has been pared down, or the perceived convenience of last-minute online filing, taxpayers have been slow to buy tax-filing software.

Last week, H&R Block(NYSE: HRB) reported a 5.4% uptick in tax-preparation fees through the first two months of the year. In other words, folks aren't abandoning the need to take their W2s and 1099s to a professional over buying tax-planning software and filing on their own. [And if that's you, visit our Tax Center for free help and advice.]

Intuit isn't perfect. Our own Tom Jacobs proved prescient when he took the company to task earlier this year for the rapid growth in accounts receivable relative to sales. But if you can learn to forgive the seasonal and balance sheet hiccups, Intuit still has plenty to offer.

With a begrudging thanks to the country's ever-changing tax code, TurboTax and QuickBooks have been a dependable annuity for Intuit. Users upgrade every year. Quicken may not lend itself to the same cast of annual tollbooths, but the company still finds ways to market the software as a timely upgrade.

Intuit has grown its business by at least 25% during this pillow-soft economy, and one can only wonder about its capability if the climate were running on all cylinders.

These are taxing times, indeed, but more so for investors on the sidelines than the company itself.

Discussion Board of the Day: Tax Strategies

Are you getting a big tax refund this year? You don't know yet? You haven't filed? Need some last-minute tax tips or ready to plan for 2003? All this and more -- in the Tax Strategies discussion board. Only on

Stop Shunning Savings

You asked for it. So what are you waiting for?

OK, maybe you didn't personally filibuster on the floor of Congress to get some breaks on retirement savings. But your elected officials did -- and to great results.

Under the 2001 Economic Growth & Tax Relief Reconciliation Act, the contribution limits to retirement accounts increased beginning in 2002 and, in most cases, will get bigger this year:

  • 401(k), 403(b), 457 accounts, and SARSEPs: The annual contribution limit increased to $11,000 in 2002 and increases to $12,000 for 2003. Anyone age 50 or older could make a "catch-up contribution" of $1,000 in 2002 and $2,000 in 2003.

  • SIMPLE IRAs: The contribution limit increased to $7,000 in 2002 and will rise to $8,000 for 2003. The catch-up contribution (again, for the half-centenarians and beyond) was $500 in 2002 and increases to $1,000 this year.

  • Traditional and Roth IRAs: For 2002 and 2003, the limit was raised to $3,000, and the catch-up contribution limit is $500.

Sounds pretty good, right? But according to the results of a recent survey, most of us couldn't care less. According to a CIGNA Retirement & Investment Services study, "Trust & Consequences: Closing the Retirement Awareness Gap," just 35% of workers are actually taking advantage of these changes.

It's not that we're clueless, either -- 61% of respondents said they are aware of the new provisions. Yet a whopping 29% say they are not -- and have no plans to take advantage of the changes.

More changes might be on the horizon, if the newly proposed savings accounts become law. Again, awareness is high:

  • 77% have heard or read about the new Retirement Savings Account (RSA), and 67% say they are at least somewhat interested in participating;

  • 71% have heard or read about the new Lifetime Savings Account (LSA), and 69% say they are at least somewhat interested in participating;

  • 66% have heard or read about the new Employer Retirement Savings Account (ERSA), and 57% indicate they are at least somewhat interested in participating.

We applaud your good intentions. But these proposed accounts won't become law anytime soon, if at all; some experts have already proclaimed them D.O.A.

So, now is time to follow through, using the tax-saving retirement accounts already available. Plus, it's not too late to take action for 2002. If you're reading this before April 15, there's still time to sock away more in an IRA.

Take the bait!

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HealthSouth Heads South

One more allegedly dishonest company is under fire. Federal investigators recently charged HealthSouth's (NYSE: HRC) chief executive officer with fraud. Richard Scrushy allegedly overstated the Birmingham, Ala., rehabilitation care provider's earnings by $1.4 billion since 1999.

Hours after the FBI raided HealthSouth's headquarters Wednesday, the SEC filed charges and ordered a trading halt of the company's shares. Before the halt, HealthSouth dropped to $3.91, down 75% from the company's 52-week high. Yesterday, Standard & Poor's booted HealthSouth from its S&P 500 index.

According to the SEC's complaint, HealthSouth CEO Scrushy inflated the company's earnings in order to please Wall Street. Following a plunge from $28 to $9 in 1998 after a negative earnings report spooked the market, Scrushy allegedly told his subordinates to "fix it."

Fix it they did, figuring out ways to make earnings look better and overstating assets by claiming to have spent $800 million on medical equipment and other supplies that were never actually purchased. The company also generated fake invoices in order to convince auditors that the assets were really added. Good grief! It's so blatant that it's hard to believe the company thought it could get away with it!

The SEC said that the subordinates in question tried to talk Scrushy into stopping the fraud, but he refused. He's benefited from more than $15 million in pay and bonuses from 1999-2001, and has sold nearly 8 million shares of HealthSouth. He's now "on leave" from the company, as is its chief financial officer, William T. Owens. Both men certified the company's financials to the SEC back in August, allegedly knowing full-well that they shouldn't have.

Scrushy was already under scrutiny in the eyes of many shareholders after HealthSouth warned in August that new Medicare accounting changes would hurt earnings. He sold half his stake in the company -- $25 million-worth -- mere weeks before the announcement.

Now the SEC says the Medicare scare was nothing but a Scrushy-created "scheme" to lower analysts' expectations, and that HealthSouth has reported fake earnings at Scrushy's behest since 1986. Scrushy founded HealthSouth in 1984 with a couple of friends.

Dirty is as dirty does. When this much bad news flows out of a company, unfortunately, this is usually just the start. Don't stick around, waiting for the air to clear. Run, and run now.

Quick Takes

The AOL Time Warner(NYSE: AOL) board of directors can breathe a collective sigh of relief. Ted Turner isn't totally backing away from AOL after all. While he will still give up his vice-chairman post in May, Turner announced today he will remain on the company's board.

Advertisers from McDonald's(NYSE: MCD) to Pepsi(NYSE: PEP) are toning down their commercial messages or yanking them altogether in the midst of the war. McDonald's has pulled TV ads to promote its new sweepstakes game. Pepsi was supposed to run ads for Gatorade to coincide with March Madness, but has shifted the ads for later in the tourney. MasterCard began a seven-day ad blackout yesterday, though it will air one ad during Sunday's Academy Awards ceremony. One media analyst estimated that these moves and more could drain $1 million a day from the industry.

Palm (Nasdaq: PALM) showed its hand this morning, reporting a third-quarter loss of $172.3 million, or $5.93 a share, including charges. In the year-ago period, it recorded a profit of $2.9 million. Minus the charges, Palm's loss was $26.5 million, or $0.91 per share, in line with analysts' expectations. Sales also fell, dropping 28.6% to $209 million.

Consumer prices jumped by 0.6% in February, marking the largest rise in two years. The Consumer Price Index rose twice as fast in February as it did in January, as gas and other energy products' prices rose. Excluding energy prices, the core Index increased just 0.1%, indicating that inflation's largely under control.

And Finally...

Today on

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