What was so normal about the old normal? Buying a house with no financial documentation? A negative savings rate? Three billion credit-card solicitations in one year? 

That was what Mellody Hobson, president of Ariel Investments, asked attendees at Schwab Advisor Services' annual Impact conference in Boston. While expressing great respect for the investment wizardry of PIMCO honchos Bill Gross and Mohammed El-Arian, Hobson and Schwab Chief Investment Strategist Liz Ann Sonders seemed to agree that the new normal was a lot closer to the real normal than the old normal.

Both Hobson and Sonders voiced a surprising degree of optimism about the U.S. economy and equity markets. Sonders compared the American economy to a combustion engine.

"Everything is there," she said. "We just need a spark."

Hobson said that she did not think that the prediction of Legg Mason's Bill Miller that stock prices could triple in the next 12 years was unrealistic. "Big blue-chip names haven't moved" for a long time, Hobson said.

Both Hobson and Sonders also voiced skepticism about commodities. "The long-term story for commodities [over half a century] has not been a compelling one," Hobson said. A member of the board of directors of Starbucks, Hobson cited the rise in the price of coffee as inexplicable. "No one can understand what is going on," she said, hinting that the price may be subject to manipulation.

Sonders described gold as "a fear trade" and she added that oil probably has greater fundamental underpinnings than the precious metal.

Sonders also expressed doubts on the common wisdom that we can't have a sustained recovery without finance and housing participating. "The next wave will be on the business side of the economy," she said.