You've seen stock prices start off 1991 with a rip-roaring thud. But still, deep down in your greedy little mind, you are thinking of jumping back into the market.

After all, haven't you heard that stock prices usually start rallying halfway through a recession because the market begins to anticipate the next economic improvement? And didn't you read somewhere that this recession is going to be a brief and mild one?

Put that telephone down! Before you call your broker, here are a half-dozen perfectly legitimate reasons why you should not buy stocks right now. If you still feel like calling your broker after you've read this, you have my permission.

The Economy: While most experts are predicting that the nation's current economic downturn won't be any worse than the average recession -- they have lasted about 10 months each since World War II -- there are enough problems in the economy right now to make a credible argument against that view.

The debt levels of individuals, corporations and government in this country are extremely high by historical standards. With everyone already deeply in the hole, it will be difficult for the Federal Reserve Board to get people to borrow more money. And lower interest rates alone may not help.

"The government has lost its ability to stimulate the economy," said John Williams, a private economist in Ridgewood, N.J., who was predicting the onset of the recession before most of his colleagues. "Therefore, the recession will be longer and deeper than any since World War II."

If the recession is a long one, corporate profits won't be able to rebound quickly. And the value of equities will decline.

The Banking Industry: Bank of New England Corp. already has become a subsidiary of U.S. regulators, and more big banks are likely to fail in the months ahead.

These failures will affect not only the stocks of those banks but also the economy as a whole because banks, fearful of taking on more problem loans, will refuse to lend money. And that could keep both the profits and stock prices of corporations in check.

This fear of lending also will negate any effort by the Fed to stimulate the economy through lower interest rates. And the more banks that do get into trouble, the more reluctant healthy banks will be to lend money.

How many banks are on the brink? Probably hundreds. But more important, some major banks may still have to be rescued.

"There are a number of banks, some of them pretty important, that will get into serious trouble as the recession goes along," said Normam Bailey, an economic consultant in Washington who was the chief economist at the National Security Council during President Reagan's first term.

Stock Prices: Even though the stock market has come down substantially over the past year, a case can be made that it is still very overpriced.

The stocks that make up the Standard & Poor's 500 index are still selling for nearly 15 times the earnings they recorded over the past four quarters. And if stock prices stay around current levels as corporate profits decline during the recession, then price-to-earnings ratios will soar.

Because stocks were selling at just eight times earnings at the beginning of the last recession a decade ago, you'd expect the equities market to decline in this environment.

Historical Precedent: Nobody knows why, but the stock market over the years has taken a cue from its own performance in January.

According to the Hirsch Organization in Old Tappan, N.J., in the last 25 odd-numbered years, the stock market has gone down for the year as a whole if it was down in January. (It has also gone up for the year, if it gained in January.)

Stock prices are down substantially already this month, and if you believe this indicator, that's a bad omen for 1991.

In both even and odd-numbered years there is also an 80 percent correlation between how the stock market does for the year and for the first five trading days in January. This indicator, however, has been less accurate lately because of program trading.

Incidentally, the Dow Jones industrial average is down well over a hundred points in the first 10 days of 1991.

The Middle East: "If there is war in the Middle East, there is a good chance the price of oil will go to $40 a barrel or higher," said Hugh Johnson, chief market strategist for First Albany Corp. in Albany, N.Y. And the yield on long-term bonds would return to 8.75 percent, making them stiff competition for stocks.

Johnson said if that happens, the Dow could decline from 50 to 100 points immediately. "It would happen so fast that investors really couldn't do anything about it," he added.

There Are Just Too Many Problems at One Time: Even in the unlikely event that Middle East tensions ease, the nation's economy isn't going to rebound quickly.

And even if the economy did begin to improve, banks still will be loaded down with bad real estate loans.

In other words, there are no quick answers to Wall Street's problems.

It is said on Wall Street that the stock market likes to "climb a wall of worry." But nobody ever said that the stock market was a mountain climber.

Pay off your credit card debt, cut discretionary purchases and save, save, save.

That may not sound like typical investment advice, but these are the sort of helpful hints that independent financial planners are dishing out to scared clients these days.

These independents are telling clients to first make major changes in their lifestyle before bothering with investing. "The 1980s was the get-rich-quick era. The 1990s require one to get back to strong fundamentals and establish a sound, firm financial foundation before investing," said David Bugen of Individual Asset Planning Corp. of Morristown, N.J.

Bugen is preaching the gospel of thrift, telling clients to immediately begin saving a whopping 10 percent of their income or to trim unnecessary expenses until they can afford to set aside 10 percent.

Bugen, who runs his own firm, wants clients to keep six months worth of living expenses in a money market account. He also tells them to pay off consumer loans, whether they are car loans or bills run up on credit cards, because these finance charges are no longer deductible.

Bugen said people also should review their insurance. They should have a $1 million liability umbrella policy, which typically costs only a few hundred dollars a year. And they should be certain to have a policy that covers at least 60 percent of their salary in the event of disability.

Only then, said Bugen, is a person ready to start worrying about investments.

Place 50 percent of a hypothetical $50,000 in an intermediate-term -- three- to 10-year -- bond fund. And put equal amounts of the remaining $25,000 in a blue-chip mutual fund, a growth mutual fund and a fund that specializes in international stocks.

Claire Longden, who runs her own advisory firm in Rhinebeck, N.Y., believes even wealthy people should keep their money very accessible. A couple, say, 50 years old with annual income in the $70,000 range should first look to put as much as possible into a tax-deferred 401(k) retirement plan. If there are two workers in the family, put the bulk of the money into the better-performing 401(k).

Of the $50,000, this sort of family should put $12,000 into a money market fund.

Longden suggests that the family then purchase $20,000 worth of 12-year zero-coupon Treasury bonds. That would cost around $7,400.

Zeros with a face value of $20,000, maturing in 13 years would be slightly cheaper at $6,800. And 20,000 of the zeros that mature in 2004 can be bought for $6,200.

The total: $20,400. "Just leave {the bonds} there, regardless of interest rates," Longden advised.

Longden would invest another $10,000 in nine-month certificates of deposits. This will give you flexibility a year from now when, Longden believes, interest rates could be higher than they are today.

The rest of the the money, Longden said, should be invested in three mutual funds: the Fidelity Overseas Fund (which has a 3 percent sales charge), the Fidelity Equity Income Fund and the Fidelity OTC Fund.

A portfolio like this, Longden added, will give an investor a "fail safe" mechanism in the event of financial disaster. Yet it allows a reasonable return.

John Crudele is a columnist for the New York Post.