We can't say for sure whether Martha Stewart will come out of her securities fraud trial completely vindicated or as a convicted felon. But one thing's for sure, testimony so far has done nothing to soften her image as, um... hard to get along with.

Among the disclosures: Douglas Faneuil, an assistant to Stewart's broker at Merrill Lynch, wrote in an email, "I have never, ever been treated more rudely by a stranger on the telephone." Apparently, Martha was complaining about the voice of the person who answered the phone. "And then she yelled, 'This is not a joke!!! Merrill Lynch is laying off 10,000 employees because of people like that idiot!'"

Faneuil said that another time Stewart objected about the music being played while she was holding on the telephone, and threatened to leave Merrill unless "the hold music was changed."

She's a hard woman to please
And I thought about letting her know.
She's a hard lady to leave
And I thought about letting her go...
-- Mick Jagger

In today's Motley Fool Take:

Ameritrade's Ticker-Tape Parade

By Alyce Lomax

In yet another sign that the bulls are back, Ameritrade(Nasdaq: AMTD) raised its earnings guidance on Friday morning, citing a record month of trades in January. Investors took this as a "buy" signal, sending shares of Ameritrade nearly 5% higher during the day's trading session and bidding up rivals' shares as well.

For a deep winter month, January wasn't bleak at all for Ameritrade. The company said that its average daily volume of trades was 254,000, much higher than the previous record of 182,000 trades per day back in September of last year. Also, Jan. 20 was a red-letter day, with a whopping 326,000 trades.

Ameritrade expects fiscal second-quarter earnings of $0.13 to $0.19 to per share. It sees fiscal 2004 earnings to come in at $0.53 to $0.79 per share (previously, the company's low end of 2004 guidance was $0.49 a share, a figure that had already been increased once).

Other beneficiaries of the good news included E*Trade(NYSE: ET) and Motley Fool Stock Advisor pick Charles Schwab(NYSE: SCH). Toronto-Dominion(NYSE: TD) -- which owns TD Waterhouse, a brokerage that was recently in the news after aborted merger discussions with E*Trade -- also enjoyed a stock price increase.

The idea that individual investors have been returning to the stock market again after several down years isn't new, and in late January, E*Trade enjoyed similar bullish signs -- as did Ameritrade when it reported first-quarter earnings recently.

As long as the current optimism continues, it stands to reason that the discount brokerages will continue reporting upbeat numbers. However, any hiccups in the recovering economy -- or continued investor fears of being burned by another bubble, for that matter-- could result in a reversal of fortune.

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Wal-Mart Sales Foretell Danger

By Bill Mann (TMF Otter)

If Wal-Mart(NYSE: WMT) can be viewed as a good proxy, American consumers continued a mad spree in January. The mega-retailer surprised analysts and the market by turning in $18.4 billion in sales for the four weeks ended Jan. 30 -- a gain of 14.3% over the previous year. Same-store sales -- probably the more important of the two -- rose a surprising 5.7%

And yes, with revenues of $18 billion for the month, Wal-Mart's a pretty good proxy. Management called the sales "exceptional," noting they were substantially above its forecasts. This represents a bit of a change over the last several months, as the company's results had been slightly disappointing.

I'm not sure what we can gather from this news, but some things are really striking. First and foremost, Wal-Mart continues to seem impervious to the law of large numbers. When a company with annual revenues approaching $200 billion can continue to grow top line at a double-digit rate, even for shorter periods of time, that's astounding.

But these results are in line with other big retailers announcing big gains -- from Nordstrom(NYSE: JWN) to Gap Stores(NYSE: GPS) to Costco(Nasdaq: COST) to Abercrombie & Fitch(NYSE: ANF). Even Sears(NYSE: S) and J.C. Penney(NYSE: JCP) have given the thumbs up. That bodes well for the short term for the retailers.

In the longer term, could this possibly be a good thing? Americans certainly feel wealthier than they did last year at this time, and most consumer-confidence experts place a great amount of correlation in spending and job security. This flies in the face of the "jobless recovery" that we've heard so much about over the last year, as economic growth rates have not apparently been attended by a growth in jobs.

And yet, consumers spend. Certainly the burgeoning stock market has helped, as have the hundreds of billions of dollars that the cash-out refinancing spree in 2002 and early 2003 generated. But 2003 also saw a record number of American households declaring bankruptcy, and the level of consumer debt per household continues to skyrocket.

We don't know what will happen, but this strikes me as a very dangerous bet -- that a rising economy will cure the sins of overspending. It's easy to get excited by the news of a continued recovery and a stock market that rises on a daily basis, but some equanimity is perhaps prudent.

Wal-Mart sales rose substantially in January. While this may be a boon for the company and its shareholders, the source of many of those dollars continues to be a bit of a concern. Money spent before it is earned must always be repaid, something that is rarely discussed each time some news organization trumpets the rising consumer confidence number or spending increases. The link between this element and rising personal bankruptcies is quite substantial, but given the substantial interests that deeply need consumers to keep on spending, there isn't much profit in making this connection for people.

Quote of Note

"Laughter is an instant vacation." -- Milton Berle

Towering Inferno?

By Alyce Lomax

It's no secret that the sound of music has changed, not to mention the biz. Privately held Tower Records seems to have missed a beat. The Associated Press reported Thursday that Tower's considering filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, having failed to find a buyer over the past year.

Here's a flashback. Other than small, independent record stores, Tower Records was once one of very few stops I made when looking for obscure music of mostly imports and indie bands. (And, yes, kids, I bought all that stuff on vinyl, just to date myself a little here.)

Fast forward nearly 20 years (ouch), and the scene has changed. When I'm searching for hard-to-find hits, Amazon.com's(Nasdaq: AMZN) my only solution. My occasional recent trips to Tower -- driven by the hopes for instant gratification -- have been disappointing.

Most of the time, I didn't find what I went for, other than a few CDs I only picked up because they were on super special. Then I'd observe that there were only a handful of shoppers wandering the store. It's a far cry from the days when Tower -- now owned by MTS Inc. -- had an electric, almost clubby atmosphere and just about screamed hip.

It's not just Amazon, though. The digitalization of tunes is a disruptive force in the business of music; we all know the piracy story. Meanwhile, Apple Computer(Nasdaq: AAPL), Microsoft(Nasdaq: MSFT), and Wal-Mart(NYSE: WMT) are all clamoring to join in the (legal) downloading fun.

In the "burn, baby, burn, disco inferno" category, CD burning has allowed folks to easily replicate their friends' disc collections. Meanwhile, I recently found myself admiring a friend's iPod, as she raved over the loads of music she had saved in this tiny contraption that looked like a handheld video game.

Even those who aren't looking for alternative or hard-to-find titles can go to any variety of places for the hits... Borders(Nasdaq: BGP), Wal-Mart, and Best Buy(NYSE: BBY) all spring to mind.

So, Amazon's got the selection, Apple's got the hip gizmo, Wal-Mart and Best Buy have the discounts, and Borders has the books, cafes, and comfy chairs. Where does that leave Tower?

Reportedly laden with debt, Tower's way out of tune. Regardless of whether it finds a buyer or files bankruptcy, it needs to rethink its business and the current climate, and find itself a groovy new groove. Tower may have been a great place to go for musical obscurity in the past, but the lesson for investors is watch out for businesses that don't see the threat of obscurity coming.

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