So, this is it: Good-bye 2003.

Here at the Fool, we don't fixate on day-to-day gyrations in the broader markets. But you have to admit, all things being equal, an up year is a sight to behold. Especially after three years down.

Where will we be this time next year? Nobody knows. It's fun to make guesses and to place our bets, but there's only one defense against the unknown: Stay invested and keep investing. Let the markets take care of themselves.

Happy New Year!

In today's Motley Fool Take:

Not-So-Friendly Skies

One hundred years after the first powered flight, there are still things wrong in the Wright business. Last week, ATA Holdings(Nasdaq: ATAH) announced its "Vow to Save More in 2004" discount fares. With rival air carriers left with little choice but to follow, this may sound like good news to you, but it is bad news for the industry.

The major carriers might just translate the ATA promise to "Vow to Bleed More in 2004." After all, airlines just weren't built for flying folks around for as little as $63 each way as ATA will be doing over the next few months.

Even the discounters can't be happy. ATA's low-cost, multitasking workforce accounted for just 29% of the carrier's operating expenses last year. Pioneer Southwest(NYSE: LUV), on the other hand, has a 39% hurdle to clear.

And for all the love given JetBlue(Nasdaq: JBLU) during its brief existence, no one is immune to a pricing war. Resistance may be futile. Two weeks ago, American Airlines parent AMR(NYSE: AMR) announced a fuel surcharge increase, only to reverse itself four days later after its competitors failed to follow suit.

While major carriers such as AMR and Continental(NYSE: CAL) have seen their shares more than triple off their March lows, the industry's discounting ways may nip those ascending patterns before the sector can really take flight.

So, go ahead and take advantage of the great winter deals out there. Why not? Smile as you stare into the remnants of your salty tinfoil-wrapped snack. Yes, you're flying for peanuts. However, this is a sector that wasn't crafted to work for peanuts.

Discussion Board of the Day: Cheap Air Fares

It's not just ATA putting out some great fares in 2004. Want to learn about more cost-cutting deals? Care to share some discounting travel tips? All this and more -- in the Cheap Air Fares discussion board. Only on

Auto Sales Revved

By Alyce Lomax

Soon, we'll don funny hats, sing "Auld Lang Syne," and participate in the obligatory midnight smooch. Analysts, meanwhile, predict a strong finale for U.S. auto sales for 2003. But what does the future hold for 2004?

Reuters on Tuesday said analysts expect strong sales of new cars from General Motors(NYSE: GM), DaimlerChrysler(NYSE: DCX), and Ford(NYSE: F). However, the late-year surge is due to signs of a strengthening economy and, of course, the lure of incentives.

A month or two ago, indicators gave good reason to expect new cars in driveways and garages, and that has shown itself to be true, considering November's strong sales; December's reports are due Monday. After a few years of tight budgets and caution, it makes sense that the pent-up consumer might want to trade in his old heap and invest in some shiny new wheels (especially with 0% interest rates on financing or those ever-longer power train warranties on repairs).

However, economic indicators released Tuesday may give investors reason to question whether cars will still jump off the lots once 2004 gets under way. Most significant is the implication that consumer confidence, which was showing signs of improvement, got shaky again in December, based on an upswing in the attitude that jobs are difficult to find.

Another holiday story has been the fickle consumer's relationship with retail, with lots of shopping no-shows until the end of the month. This consumer demands some incentive to spend money, implying that she will only open her wallet for sales.

It stands to reason that more people will invest in new cars once they're convinced jobs are plentiful, not to mention that they'll keep their own jobs. However, as testament to the fact that 2003's denouement might have been a good time for new cars -- and, perhaps, to life imitating commercial -- I actually did see a new red car tied up with a giant white bow in a driveway over the weekend. Someone out there's sure to have a good New Year.

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Choose the Right Broker

When looking for a broker, start off by examining fees. Find out how much you'll be charged in commissions for various transactions and services. Since some discount brokers set up their fee structure to encourage high-volume trading, find out if you're required to make a minimum number of trades per year or quarter and if additional fees are imposed for not meeting the trading requirements. Here are some other considerations:

  • The minimum initial deposit. Some brokerages require at least several thousand dollars, while others have no minimum.

  • Usability and service. If the brokerage offers online trading, check out its website's interface and see how easy it is to navigate and use. Ask some questions and see how responsive the customer service representatives are.

  • Banking services. Some brokerages now offer banking services, such as check writing, money market accounts, credit cards, ATM cards, direct deposit, and more. Look into these if you're interested. It might benefit you to consolidate bank, money market, mutual fund, IRA, and other accounts to take advantage of the attractive one-stop shopping options offered by some discount brokers today.

  • Research. Some brokerages offer free company research for their customers. This can be attractive, but research is available for free or for a reasonable price elsewhere online.

  • Mutual fund offerings. Many brokerages offer a variety of mutual funds. If you're interested in some particular funds, check to see which brokerages offer them. Know, though, that you can usually purchase no-load mutual funds directly from their companies.

  • Non-stock offerings. If you're interested in bonds, for example, see whether they're offered.

  • Convenience. Would you rather place trade orders through an actual person, touch-tone phone, or the Web? See which brokerages offer what you want.

Some of these factors are more important than others. For example, if you trade only twice a year, commission costs might not matter as much. To guide your decision, make a list of all the services you need and how vital they are. Then evaluate each contender on each category.

To learn to more about brokerages and possibly find a better brokerage for yourself, check out our Broker Center. Since your short-term money should not be in stocks, learn to put it to good use in our Savings Center, where we also offer you some good deals on interest rates.

Quote of Note

"It's no longer a question of staying healthy. It's a question of finding a sickness you like." -- Jackie Mason

More Fool News

For a list of all our stories from today, see Today's Headlines.

And Finally...

Today on, got New Year's resolutions? On Bill Mann's to-do list for 2004: Join the Crowd.

Bob Bobala, Robert Brokamp, Sam Edwards, 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