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Business & Real Estate

Is the bull still in charge?

The stock market’s pundits, gurus and second-guessers are sounding a warning bell for a rocky autumn, but then you pull up Barron’s Financial Weekly and the headline reads: “The Bull’s in Charge.” What’s an investor to do?

The Standard & Poor’s 500 fell 4.5 percent from its August peak, and the Dow Jones industrial average dropped 5.5 percent. Emerging markets took a pounding. Those are facts.

September, the U.S. stock market’s worst month historically, poses some major risks this year. By the end of the month, investors should have at least partial answers to some questions of importance.

Many of the events are political, including the Syrian crisis, which could ignite a powder keg in the Middle East; and the looming budget, debt-ceiling and immigration-reform debates. To top it off, the Federal Reserve could retreat from its easy-money policy and reduce its $85 billion monthly bond purchases. The next Fed policy meeting, scheduled Sept. 18-19, will include a discussion on tapering.

Investors appear to be bracing for a letdown, but with recent reports suggesting that U.S. manufacturing is rebounding and employment and consumer confidence are holding up, stocks could enjoy a rally if we get through September without too many major disappointments.

Barron’s noted that despite stock-market declines and the possibility of an autumn correction, Wall Street’s top strategists see the market headed higher over the long term, with stocks rising 20 percent or more in 18 months.

Two stocks - including a Town Crier “50” - generated headlines last week.

•┬áCisco Systems Inc. (CSCO; $23.97) shares have fallen 10 percent since the company declared its July-quarter earnings. In the quarter, Cisco earned 52 cents per share, excluding special items that were up 11 percent – beating the consensus by a penny. Revenue advanced 6 percent to $12.42 billion on balanced growth. Cisco has a market cap of $125.9 billion, with an average daily trading volume of 35.1 million shares.

The San Jose-based company recently announced plans to cut 4,000 jobs, approximately 5 percent of its workforce. Cost trends are mixed, with production expenses rising and operating expenses falling. Layoffs and resource reallocation should help address the cost issues.

Cisco could remain under pressure in the near term, but the stock is still a buy both short and long term, according to several analyst ratings. Most analysts have upgraded the stock either to a hold or market perform. The mean target price is $28, with a high of $32. The dividend returns a yield of 2.91 percent.

•┬áVarian Medical Systems Inc. (VAR; $72.44) of Palo Alto may not be a Town Crier 50 stock, but it is the world’s leading manufacturing of devices and software for treating cancer and other medical conditions. The company is also the premier supplier of tubes and digital detectors for X-ray imaging in medical, scientific and industrial applications.

Three years ago, Varian undertook a companywide review of sustainability performance, identifying challenges and opportunities. The company issued its 2013 Sustainability Report last week, outlining its commitment to achieving its goals in a “socially and environmentally responsible manner,” according to CEO Dow Wilson.

Varian has maintained decent operating momentum despite currency problems in Asia and stiff headwinds in North America. The company has grown cash from operations at least 18 percent in five of the past six quarters. Sales are up 6 percent over the past year and have risen in 59 straight quarters.

Varian stock has rallied 22 percent in the past year, ahead of the S&P 500’s 17 percent gain. The stock remains reasonably valued, and most analysts rate it a buy or hold, with a market-perform rating. The mean target price for the stock is $78, with a high of $85.

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