The stock market is taking some ages-old advice to heart: everything in moderation.
Stocks on Wednesday ended a first quarter that many investors and analysts would describe as healthy. The Standard & Poor's 500 index is up 4.9 percent by amassing a string of steady gains that were far from the supersized jumps seen in 2009. The Dow Jones industrials are up 4.1 percent, but with unremarkable gains of 50 points here and 15 there. They've had few of the triple-digit swings that used to be commonplace.
The market's relative tranquility has made many analysts upbeat about the chances that its gains will hold. They say investors now have realistic not overoptimistic expectations. And the market has gotten used to the idea of a bumpy economic recovery, including the continuing struggles of the housing market. But analysts warn, for stocks to extend their January-March gains, investors will need to see employers hiring again.
Even then, the market is expected to take its time.
"Like any sprinter, at some point you've got to put your hands on your knees and take a deep breath," said John Lynch, chief market analyst at Evergreen Investments in Charlotte, N.C. "That's why we've seen these mild advances in recent weeks — consistent but mild."
A by-the-numbers look at the advance that some traders have called the "tortoise rally":
— The Dow fell 51 points, or 0.5 percent, to 10,856.63 Wednesday but still posted its best first quarter since 1999. It has risen four straight quarters. It is approaching 11,000 for the first time in a year and a half. It's up 9.6 percent after falling to 9,908.39 on Feb. 8.
The quarter has padded the Dow's huge 2009 gain, putting the average 65.8 percent above the 12-year low of 6,547.05 it reached on March 9 of last year. However, it's still down 23.4 percent from its October 2007 peak of 14,164.53.
— The broader S&P 500 index fell 3.84, or 0.3 percent, to 1,169.43 Wednesday but rose 4.9 percent for the first quarter and 5.4 percent including dividends. It's the index's best first-quarter since 1998. For the past 12 months, it's up 46.6 percent. S&P says the index is up about 53.6 percent when dividends are included.
— The Nasdaq composite index fell 12.73, or 0.5 percent, to 2,397.96 Wednesday. It rose 5.7 percent for the quarter, largely on the strength of companies like Apple Inc., which rose 11.5 percent. Overall, the tech stocks that dominate the Nasdaq had a more modest quarter.
— The top performer in the S&P 500 index during the first quarter was Zions Bancorp. It surged 70.2 percent.
— The S&P stock with the biggest price drop was H&R Block Inc. The tax preparer fell 21.3 percent.
— Industrial stocks had the biggest advance among S&P 500 segments. They rose 12.5 percent on expectations that growth in places like China will continue and that spending on everything from roads to equipment will pick up.
— Financial stocks, which have led the market in the past year, rose 10.8 percent as banks repair their balance sheets and investors grow more hopeful that mortgage and other loan defaults will decline.
— Telecommunications companies have been the worst performing segment of the S&P 500. Their stock prices have fallen 5.7 percent. These stocks are seen as safe plays in bad economies in part because they often carry big dividends. But they lose their appeal when the economy picks up.
— Utility stocks, also known for paying hefty dividends, saw their shares fall 4.6 percent for the quarter.
Three months ago, the quarter looked like it might be difficult. Starting in early January, the Dow fell 5 percent in about five weeks and investors eared that the stock market's 2009 leap was another bubble about to pop.
Uncertainty about whether China would raise interest rates to keep its fast growth in check hit stocks early on. And questions about whether debt problems in Greece or policy changes in Washington would derail the market have periodically sent stocks skidding.
Investors are still cautious about the economy, especially as the government winds down some of the programs it implemented in 2008 and 2009 to help the economy. The Federal Reserve on Wednesday was ending a program to purchase mortgages. The plan was designed to hold down mortgage rates, which may now creep higher even as the housing market remains weak.
The immediate concern, however, is jobs. The Labor Department issues its March employment report on Friday. Economists expect the report to say that employers added jobs in March for only the second time since the recession began in December 2007.
"There is nothing more important than the labor numbers," said Jim O'Sullivan, chief economist at MF Global. He said if there is a gain for March it will need to continue to convince investors.
"The question is how much more improvement do you see in the next three or four months," O'Sullivan said.
Some analysts are cautious because of the market's own dynamics. They note that trading volume has been light because some traders are nervous about committing more money to stocks until the job market improves.
Barbara Marcin, manager at the Gabelli Blue Chip Value Fund in Rye, N.Y., said stocks are appropriately valued where they are and doesn't see much reason for further gains.
"You can't say it's a really good buy and yet we keep going up," she said.
A year ago, Marcin knew stocks had fallen too far and would eventually turn higher. Now, she's uncertain.
"I'm not sure what you're looking at 12 months from now."
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