Among the great heroes of stock market mythology, few stand taller than the Bargain Hunters.

Down through the decades on Wall Street, this stouthearted band has pulled off more dramatic rescues than the Lone Ranger has. While nobody has actually seen them, anybody can recognize their handiwork.

One day you're watching stock averages make new multiyear lows, mired in gloom over the outlook for economic growth and corporate profits. The very next day, though nothing has changed in the business news, stock prices mysteriously rally.

Pressed for an explanation, analysts are so ready with the answer you'd think they'd found a silver bullet on the trading floor. It's the Bargain Hunters, they report. And where did these Bargain Hunters come from? From their legendary hiding place, The Sidelines.

If the ensuing rise in stock prices continues for more than a day or two, the market might run into an opposing gang, the Profit Takers. But that's a story for another time.

Last minute arrival

Some peculiarities about Bargain Hunters have never been explained for instance, how they decide when to move and when to sit tight. As the stock market languished through most of February and March in 2001, there was scarcely a Bargain Hunter to be found, while prices of many stocks got cheaper than they had been in years.

Just before the first quarter was about to come to a grisly end, a few Bargain Hunters rode in to buy Dow Jones Industrial Average-type stocks. The result was that in four days the Dow gained almost 6 percent, cutting its loss since the start of the year to 7.8 percent.

Another puzzle is how to distinguish Bargain Hunters from plain old ordinary investors. In every stock trade that ever occurs, isn't the buyer hoping to get a bargain? Seems to me that's true even when the investor in question is engaged in some special rite of the markets such as Buy on the Rumor, Sell on the News.

In this skeptical age, editors at some news services may forbid mention of the Bargain Hunters in stories about the market. They insist instead that coverage focus on "real people," such as Alan Greenspan, chairman of the Federal Reserve Board.

Fat lot of success Greenspan has had lately bucking up stocks with his interest-rate reductions. No, this is a job for the Bargain Hunters. They're the only ones who can save us.

Watch your step

Once the rest of us investors have seen the Bargain Hunters in action a few times, it's only natural for us to fantasize about playing that role ourselves. I know that I'm nagged constantly these days by the thought that I might be missing a chance to pick up a few things cheap.

Before I get myself fitted for a Bargain Hunter costume, though, I've resolved to watch out for a couple of pitfalls.

First of all, I've taken a vow to remember that the standouts in a new bull market are seldom the same as the stars of the last one.

Obvious example: If I'm going to buy shares of a "technology" stock mutual fund, I want one that has shown some versatility and adaptability. No Internet shooting stars, please.

Secondly, I've promised myself not to spend undue time worrying about whether "growth" or "value" funds will fare better in the next market cycle. Though the two may sound like polar opposites one stressing high hopes for the future, the other low prices in the present real-world investing seldom fits into such neat categories.

Chet Currier is a columnist for Bloomberg News.

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