Stocks' tug-of-war

NEW YORK ( -- Stocks have ended four of the last five weeks higher, leaving the Nasdaq and S&P 500 at 18-month highs and the Dow industrials not far from such levels.

Since bottoming at a 6-year low on March 9 of last year, the Nasdaq has gained 87%. Since bottoming at a 12-year low on the same day, the S&P 500 has gained 70% and the Dow has gained 62%.

But the majority of those gains happened last year and another leg up for the market could prove elusive, at least for the time being. With just two weeks left in the first quarter, investors are set to wade through a period that's devoid of corporate profit reports and still fraught with worries about the outlook for the economy.

"We're in a volatile period right now," said Kevin Mahn, portfolio manager at Hennion & Walsh. "2010 is going to be a transitional year and I think both stock market and economic growth will be muted."
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Although stocks are up modestly, following 2009's big stock rally, it has been a challenging start to the year. So far, Wall Street has seen expectations for a robust recovery bat up against the reality of a still hard-hit labor market and housing sector, not to mention the fallout from huge U.S. and global deficits.

But some positives have also emerged, including last week's surprisingly strong retail sales report and indications that manufacturing is recovering. The push and pull between weaker and stronger reports has enabled stocks to eke out enough gains to get the major gauges back to levels not seen in 1-1/2 years. But the next push is likely to be a lot harder.

This week brings a series of reports on manufacturing, as well as the latest on the job market, the housing market and inflation. The Federal Reserve meets Tuesday to discuss interest rate policy and the outlook for the economy.