Both the New York Stock Exchange and the Nasdaq opened on time this morning, despite the blackout that gripped the Northeast and parts of the Midwest and Canada yesterday afternoon. Stocks hung languidly near the breakeven point for most of the day.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg rang the opening bell on Wall Street in a show of confidence. Earlier, he'd told New Yorkers to treat today as a "snow day" as they debated whether to go into work or not -- wishful thinking as the temperature topped 90 degrees. Some traders had it good, sleeping in the NYSE's private club above the exchange floor, which had emergency power last night.

At Fool HQ in the Mid-Atlantic, the power was on, and so was today's Motley Fool Take:

Buy Dell or Hold?

You can set your clock by it. Every three months, Dell(Nasdaq: DELL) updates the world on its business and financial affairs. What's strange is how little it seems to matter whether the computer market is humming along or falling apart at the seams. Dell is going to deliver another healthy quarter.

Last night, the company posted a 24% spurt in second-quarter profits on $9.8 billion in sales. Think the desktop is dead? Dell shows a 25% surge in shipments. Think servers are bad business because the dot-com boom went bust and companies are scaling back their information technology spending? Dell's server side managed a 27% jump in unit sales.

It's interesting to watch Dell stick to its knitting and grow in related areas like servers and printers. Most of its rivals treated personal computing like some cootie-riddled disaster and moved on to new ventures.

Hewlett-Packard (NYSE: HPQ) , Dell's closest competitor these days in what has become essentially a two-horse race, is making a run for IBM's(NYSE: IBM) stronghold in information technology products and services. Gateway(NYSE: GTW) is into plasma television sets. Apple(Nasdaq: AAPL) is selling digital music players and downloads. Not Dell.

Dell never suffered as badly as its peers, so it never really had a reason to move on. When it's feeding at a trough this well -- on its way to just over $3 billion in free cash flow this year -- why eat out? The company is looking to earn $0.26 a share in the third quarter on $10.5 billion in sales.

Yes, you can tap that snooze bar again. Odds are that Dell will wake you in three months with more of the same.

Discussion Board of the Day: Dell Computer

While Dell's numbers have been stable over the past few quarters, can the same be said for the stock? Is Dell overvalued here in the $30s? Where would you expand next if you were Michael Dell? All this and more -- in the Dell Computer discussion board. Only on

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R.J. Reynolds Blows Smoke

Right about the time a good chunk of North America pitched into yesterday's 4 p.m. heart of darkness (boy, was it dark), R.J. Reynolds(NYSE: RJR) gets slapped with a smoldering subpoena. Of all the rotten luck.

Think about it: Historic outages spawn monster, anxiety-driven outdoor carnivals of sorts -- just the opportunity to light up during a long walk home in the fresh city air -- and R.J. Reynolds can't even pause to enjoy the parade.

The SEC reported late yesterday that it filed for federal enforcement of an earlier subpoena filed against the company July 3. That first subpoena requested that the second-largest roll 'em-and-smoke 'em tobacco merchant cough up documents detailing its accounting practices.

The burning issue: How does R.J. Reynolds account for its copious litigation costs? This inquiry is part of a larger, formal investigation, in which the SEC is seeking out possible securities law violations.

Ever belligerent, R.J. Reynolds refuses to hand over the documents on grounds that the information is confidential and, if disclosed, could harm the company's legal stance and strategy. The SEC wants details of litigation fees and expenses on a monthly, quarterly, and annual basis. Reynolds says it wants a guarantee the information will remain confidential.

Meanwhile, investors have plenty of other reasons to pace the den. R.J. Reynolds -- maker of Camel, Salem, Doral, and others -- sells 25% of our nation's cigarettes, but sales and free cash flow (FCF) have been eaten alive, not by swarming locusts, but by low-priced competition and state excise taxes. Take a look since 1999:

          1999   2000   2001   2002   YTD (to 6/30)
  Sales  $7.4B    6.0    6.2    6.2    2.6
FCF     neg.  $614M    552    378    neg.
Sales in billions, Free Cash Flow in millions.

Reynolds is expected to earn $2.84 per share this year, nearly $1 less than its annual $3.80 per share (or $320 million) dividend. After getting sliced in half in the last 12 months, the $31 stock yields a giant 11.80%, making Altria's(NYSE: MO) 6.30% look downright rank.

Given Reynold's $1.2 billion in cash and equivalents (against $1.7 billion debt) and steady net income, the dividend appears safe for now. But seeing how the pesky Department of Justice has a potential $289 billion charge hanging over the tobacco industry, what happens in the coming years is anyone's guess.

Vegas, horse tracks, cards, and cigarettes (or their stocks) go together for a reason: They're all a form of gambling.

Quote of Note

"The world is the house of the strong. I shall not know until the end what I have lost or won in this place, in this vast gambling den where I have spent more than sixty years, dicebox in hand, shaking the dice." -- Denis Diderot, 1713-1784, French philosopher

Read the Fine Print

When the question of "Can you really do that?" comes up in dealings with your bank, cell phone provider, employer, or rental car company, the answer is usually, "Yup." Especially if you signed a contract where the questioned surcharge/waiver/agreement/anomaly is outlined in section 69(a)Mii.478. (Lawyers have a unique numbering system.)

Most people know that it pays to read the fine print. Not surprisingly, the bigger the purchase, the more closely we scrutinize the teeny-tiny type on the contracts we're asked to sign, says legal website

According to its new survey, 85% of the 1,000 adults surveyed nationwide say they read every word (or at least enough to understand contracts) when buying a home. Employment contracts come under pretty heated scrutiny as well, with 82% of respondents claiming to be very familiar with the terms before committing their John Hancock.

Our eagle-eye ways begin to wane when it comes to scouring credit card agreements (77%), housing rental contracts (70%), sports and recreation liability waivers (67%), and rental car agreements (63%). In fact, when asked which contracts they are most likely to just glance at or completely ignore, 15% to 18% of people admitted their eyes glaze over at credit card, rental car, and sports waiver agreements.

We know that you don't want to waste any time getting your turn on the Moon Bounce, but by giving just a cursory look at contracts, you could be leaving your good money (not to mention, your complaining rights) on the table. (How many people do you know slapped their foreheads the first time they used and got stuck with a flight with three layovers for a trip just one state over?)

In the case of credit card agreements, you don't even have to sign anything to notify the company that you accept the terms of the contract. The moment you activate the card, it's yours. And you are at the lender's (legal) whim. (Though we're particularly proud of our clear-language, large-type Motley Fool Visa card member agreement.)

In many cases, you can negotiate better terms than the ones outlined in a contract. Employment contracts and mortgage agreements -- even some cell phone plans -- often have wiggle room. Mention the perks you want (e.g., rollover minutes), and the penalties you refuse to pay (e.g., prepayment fees), before you sign.

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Quick Takes

The American Automobile Association reports that many gas stations were unable to open this morning in areas affected by the blackout, leaving millions of drivers unable to, um, drive. Looking on the bright side, AAA spokesman Geoff Sundstrom says there will probably be very little effect on prices, because "even though you lose a day of gasoline production, you also lose a day of demand."

The No. 1 risk facing the U.S. economy today is the soaring federal deficit. So says a survey of 194 members of the National Association for Business Economics. Second on the list of worries is rising unemployment, followed by homeland security issues. The possibility that diminutive former child actor Gary Coleman might be elected California governor was a distant fourth.

Navistar International (NYSE: NAV) flipped a year-ago $0.26-per-share loss into a $0.26 third-quarter profit. The truck and school bus maker was helped by cost-cutting measures, and predicted "strong profitability" in 2004.

The team that produced such classics as the Shelby Cobra, Shelby Mustang, and the Ford GT40 are back together. Ford(NYSE: F) has announced another partnership with legendary designer Carroll Shelby. The first project will be a Ford GT supercar. The Shelby line targets customers who want "increased power, better handling and unique design." And, presumably, to spend more.

And Finally...

Today on LouAnn Lofton pits Netflix and TiVo against each another... Rick Munarriz on saving Bill Mann exposes a tangled web of insider dealings that leaves little for Parlux shareholders... If you're a teacher, Uncle Sam has tax breaks just for you... Bookmark our ever-changing News section for our Foolish perspective on today's news.

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