Anyone who doubts that the rally to record highs in the first quarter of 1985 was speculative in nature has only to check the characteristics of the leading gainers. One such study, by The Media General Financial Weekly, keeps tabs on the price performance of individual stocks over a 30-week period. Six weeks after the recent upleg visibly began in early January, no fewer than 8 of the top 10 most rapid gainers on the New York Stock Exchange were showing negative earnings. There were seven losers on the American Stock Exchange. And over in the smaller companies' stomping ground, the NASDAQ market, 9 of the top 10 were in the red.

As the accompanying chart shows, for all the negative earnings in its big movers, NASDAQ led the popular averages in this bull period with a remarkable increase of 21%. The INC. Index and the Amex were tied at 14%. Why were the latter two speculative indices one-third slower? Likely, that is a consequence of Wall Street nerves, which in ecent months quivered in automatic esponse whenever one sluggish quarter was reported, never mind an out-and-out loss. One day this February, for instance, the common stock of Data General Corp. on the NYSE shed 24% -- from 72 7/8 to 58 3/4 -- within six hours, mainly because flatter-than-projected earnings were reported. Oddly, companies with earnings growth have remained suspect -- the Street doesn't have faith it can continue.

A company that promotes itself too vigorously courts such disaster as befell Data General, because chief executive officers tend to view their future through green-colored glasses. But if growth expectations are underplayed, Wall Street will be delighted when results exceed them. And if they don't, at least the stock price won't get clobbered. Often it is hard to repair a stock that takes a drubbing, no matter how sound the fundamentals may prove to be. In the case of Data General, its recent entry into microcomputer portables may turn out to be what the company needs, but red-seeing sellers were blind to the promise.

On the other hand, there isn't much to promote in companies that have been bathed in red. Yet their stocks were the fastest out of the gate. The Street had underestimated the staying power of some of the struggling companies, and now was betting that they might recover with a bang. But please, all you battered CEOs -- don't start bragging.