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Stocks hit pause on 3-month rally

Saturday, June 13, 2009

NEW YORK -- The stock market's rally is on hold, and it's not clear what might restart it.

Stock indicators barely budged this week after last week's big gains. The Dow Jones industrial average did manage to push into the black for the year with a modest gain Friday, but many traders are still cautious.

The continuing crop of better-than-expected economic news has lost its ability to incite the kinds of big gains the market was enjoying back in March, early in a three-month rally that has brought the Standard & Poor's index up 39.9 percent.

Those kinds of gains might normally take years to occur, so it's understandable that traders would become wary about hitting the "buy" button. Also, the market's enthusiasm about the economy has been checked recently by unease about rising interest rates and inflation.

Joe Clark, managing partner of Financial Enhancement Group, said investors have for now absorbed all the good news possible to push stocks higher.

"The sponge seems to be full," he said.

The bond market exercised unusual control over stocks this week as investors worried that the Treasury Department was running low on buyers for U.S. debt. While a successful bond auction Thursday eased some of those concerns, investors are still nervous that Washington might have to entice buyers with higher interest rates.

Besides determining the government's own borrowing costs, bond yields are also used as a benchmark for consumer loans and can influence how much people borrow to finance big purchases like homes. The 10-year Treasury note, which is closely tied to home mortgage rates, has risen to 3.80 from 3.71 percent in little more than a week.

Rising interest rates are worrisome because they could hamper the economy's attempts to recover from the recession, which began in December 2007.

With little to point them in either direction, stocks zigzagged in a tight range Friday as commodity and technology stocks gave up some of their recent gains.

The Dow Jones industrial average rose 28.34, or 0.3 percent, to 8,799.26. It was the Dow's highest close since Jan. 6.

The broader S&P 500 index rose 1.32, or 0.1 percent, to 946.21, and the Nasdaq composite index fell 3.57, or 0.2 percent, to 1,858.80.

For the week, the Dow edged up 0.4 percent. It was the fourth straight weekly gain for the blue chips and the 12th of the last 14.

The S&P 500 index rose 0.7 percent for the week and the Nasdaq added 0.5 percent. The indexes are all positive for the year.

Analysts said the market's pause was a healthful sign after the recent gains.

"We ran at sprinters' speed and now we're taking a couple jogs around the track to see if we can sprint again," said David Darst, chief investment strategist at Morgan Stanley Smith Barney.

Judged by other rallies, the current run could have more life. There have been 26 bull markets -- defined as a rise of more than 20 percent -- since 1928. They have lasted an average 326 calendar days, compared with the 85 days for the current surge, Darst noted. The median gain was 68 percent, compared with the 40 percent the S&P 500 index has added since March.

But Darst said the rally isn't likely to regain its strength until traders have a better sense of what will happen with interest rates, inflation, the dollar and corporate profits.

The inflation worries have come as a weakening dollar has driven up the price of oil.

Crude slipped 64 cents to $72.04 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange on Friday but the price has more than doubled since March.

Next week, Wall Street gets reports on inflation for producers and consumers and regional manufacturing.

Bond prices rose Friday, pushing yields down. The yield on the 10-year Treasury note fell to 3.80 percent from 3.86 percent late Thursday.

The dollar rose against other major currencies, while gold prices fell.

Rick Bensignor, chief market strategist at Execution LLC, said the market likely would need big news such as a further stabilization in banks to push higher. Otherwise, some gains could come as portfolio managers worried about falling behind the major indexes are forced to buy in. But he expects the market will give back some of its gains because it has risen so far so fast.

"Bulls think this is nothing more than a resting stop," he said. "Right now clearly the tug-of-war remains in place."

Advancing stocks narrowly outpaced those that fell on the New York Stock Exchange, where consolidated volume came to 4.4 billion shares, compared with 5.4 billion Thursday. A computer glitch briefly halted trading on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange for more than 200 of the 3,100 stocks that trade there. Electronic trading continued without interruption, however.

The Russell 2000 index of smaller companies rose 0.75, or 0.1 percent, to 526.83.

Overseas, Japan's Nikkei stock average rose 1.6 percent. Asian markets were buoyed by reports that retail sales and industrial output grew in China in May. Britain's FTSE 100 fell 0.5 percent, Germany's DAX index fell 0.7 percent, and France's CAC-40 slid 0.3 percent.


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