After a two-day, closed-door meeting -- what do they really do at these things? -- the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) decided not to move interest rates today, as the "probability of an unwelcome fall in inflation has diminished in recent months and now appears almost equal to that of a rise in inflation." The Fed's target rate -- the rate at which banks borrow money from each other overnight -- will remain at 1%, a 45-year low.

Investors burped after today's statement because it was slightly different from the last one, which said the FOMC would keep rates low "for a considerable period." This time it said that "with inflation quite low and resource use slack, the committee believes that it can be patient in removing its policy accommodation."

Analysts surmised that the slight change indicates the FOMC will be quicker to increase interest rates now to cool off a warming economy. As a result, each of the major market indexes swooned 1.5% to 2% this afternoon.

Somehow, we're pretty sure life will go on.

In today's Motley Fool Take:

Don't Blame eBay

The Federal Trade Commission's recent report on top frauds in 2003 might make eBay(Nasdaq: EBAY) shoppers tentative to pull the bidding trigger. The report issued last week found that 48% of reported Internet-related fraud was tied to online auction scams, prompting who knows how many people to declare, "I'll never use eBay again!"

An alert reader pointed out how some auction-related frauds aren't actually legitimate auctions. The crooks start by staging what appears to be a bona-fide auction, but is really just a ruse to harvest contacts. The fraudster then privately contacts interested buyers and offers a better deal than advertised on the product. By taking the transaction off site and avoiding eBay fees, the scamster claims, both buyer and seller get a better deal.

Greed -- or a really great deal -- then gets the best of an unknowing consumer. Duped buyers are convinced to send money via a wire transfer. Then, predictably in hindsight, they never hear from the fraudster again.

"If you answer a private email and wire money without the auction site knowing about it, you are not a bidder," the reader said in a note to us. "You're doing the online equivalent of meeting some guy in a back alley and paying cash for something he's got in the back of a truck." Directing outrage to an auction site in this case may be off-base since such buyers never conducted a transaction on the auctioneer's site in the first place.

While auction sites can't guarantee foolproof results, they do offer buyer and seller protections, including a very public way to flag a bad seed in public. eBay's buyer protection guidelines are outlined on its site, but the rules are strict and the coverage limited. Only purchases up to $200 are covered -- $500 if you use PayPal. There's a $25 processing fee for your pain, not to mention several hoops to jump through and timelines to heed. The FTC provides tips for buyers and sellers, as well.

Still, the best advice continues to be "Buyer beware." Technology and new trade channels just make that mantra even more important to heed.

Quote of Note

"Assumptions allow the best in life to pass you by." -- John Sales

AOL Still a Drag on Time Warner

Last year, when Time Warner(NYSE: TWX) dropped the AOL from its moniker like a hot potato, it reflected the flux at that portion of the company. And, despite current triumphs like The Return of the King, AOL remains kind of a royal pain. Higher revenues may have helped reverse last year's fourth-quarter loss, but the AOL unit remained the only business segment where revenues declined.

Time Warner, a Motley Fool Stock Advisor pick, reported fourth-quarter earnings of $638 million, or $0.14 per share, as compared to a loss of $44.91 billion, or $10.04 per share in the year-earlier period. Revenue improved by 6%, which made up for the lackluster performance from AOL.

For 2004, the company predicts growth across the board, including at the struggling AOL unit. Indeed, the company sees each of its reporting segments growing in 2004, except the film segment, which will face some tough comparisons following this year's Oscar-nominated blockbuster. Time Warner repeated its expectations that the AOL unit will return to low double-digit growth this year.

Despite the high-profile nature of the AOL side of the business, Time Warner remains a vast media conglomerate. Things can get AOL-centric, despite the fact that its segments include well-known entities like cable stations HBO and TNT, as well as high-speed cable Internet access. Among the new services it touted in its conference call (transcript courtesy of CCBN StreetEvents) was the voice over Internet protocol service it's rolling out, surely an attention grabber, given the recent interest in the space.

It's difficult to forget, of course, the competitive hurdles that face AOL, from EarthLink(Nasdaq: ELNK) and United Online(Nasdaq: UNTD) to Verizon(NYSE: VZ) and SBC(NYSE: SBC) to cable providers like Comcast(Nasdaq: CMCSA) and Cox(NYSE: COX) -- not to mention from Time Warner's high-speed cable Internet operations.

If the online advertising market does recover, as is widely expected in 2004, AOL may indeed see a reversal of fortunes in the coming months. Even so, watching those subscriber numbers continues to be a major concern, though, as the company attempts to retain customers, as well as convert the narrowband customers to the broadband arena.

Today, it appears that investors were hoping for a little more proof, and a little less promise. Time Warner shares dropped as much as 4% in Wednesday's trading session.

Discussion Board of the Day: Time Warner

Is 2004 the year for Time Warner and the beleaguered AOL to turn around? Talk it out on the Time Warner discussion board. Only on

Amazon Grace

The market's been showing Amazon(Nasdaq: AMZN) a lot of love: The stock is up 10 times in value since October 2001. But 2003 may be the year that Amazon wins the respect of the bean counter as well.

The leading online retailer posted a fiscally sound year, with net sales climbing 34% to $5.3 billion. Just as importantly, if not more so, the company produced its first profitable year without having to slap the term "pro forma" to its numbers. Amazon also produced $343 million in free cash flow, nearly tripling the previous year's showing.

Amazon has become viable, in part by lowering prices and initiating everyday free-shipping policies. Now, its transforming itself into a global online marketplace. Last year, $2 billion of the company's sales were tied to international operations. Electronics and other non-media general merchandise accounted for more than $1 billion of net sales.

Increasingly, if there's an e-tailing question, there's a good chance that Amazon is the answer. Already, offline retailers such as Toys "R" Us(NYSE: TOY) and Target(NYSE: TGT) have turned to Amazon to run their online storefronts.

Moreover, while such brick-and-mortar heavies as Wal-Mart(NYSE: WMT) and Best Buy(NYSE: BBY) seemed like safe bets to have Amazon for supper as it struggled with its leveraged balance sheet, it is now in the enviable financial position to be buying back chunks of debt.

It's been a surprise to many, but online companies that once seemed vulnerable to rivals in a niche where barriers to entry were just a click away have thrived. That could be why Amazon earned an early recommendation in our Motley Fool Stock Advisor, while OSTK) was an early Motley Fool Hidden Gems pick.

Amazon isn't looking back. It plans on ringing up between $6.2 billion and $6.7 billion in sales this year. After producing $271 million in operating profits last year, the company is looking to improve on that and record between $355 million and $455 million in operating income.

Is Amazon cheap? That would be a hard argument to make. The company trades at roughly 3.5 times year-ahead sales and will probably never be the high-margin darling early optimists envisioned. Yet, Amazon is here to stay.

That may seem obvious these days. Just a few years back, it took the form of a question.

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More on Today

Bill Mann sees an eerie parallel between the '80s junk bond craze and today's stock market, in Daddy, What's a Junk Bond?. Meanwhile, Robert Brokamp wants you to ask yourself: Who Has All Your Money? Then, he'll let you in on how to get it back. Really.

Thankfully, that's it for questions, but we do have some answers in:

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