US stocks mixed in rocky week

US stocks took a roller-coaster ride in the week to Friday as Wall Street marked three years since hitting bottom in the middle of the Great Recession.

The week, a bumpy one due to worries about the Greek rescue plan, ended relatively flat for the key US indices.

But overall they looked in good shape, up solidly since the beginning of the year and far beyond the dark days of early March 2009, when the Dow Jones Industrial Average was at the 6,600 level and the S&P 500 was near 680.

For the week to Friday, the Dow edged down 0.43 percent to 12,922.02, while the S&P rose 0.09 percent to 1,370.87.

The Nasdaq Composite meanwhile gained 0.41 percent to 2,988.34, compared to its crisis low of below 1,300.

The Greek debt writeoff deal, sealed Friday, allowed the indices to work off midweek losses, and relatively buoyant economic data, including a better-than-expected jobs report Friday, helped.

The February employment data showed strong jobs creation for a third straight month, with 227,000 jobs added, though the overall unemployment rate held at 8.3 percent.

Even though separately released trade figures for January showed a rise in the trade deficit -- usually a negative for growth -- Jeffrey Rosen of Briefing Research said the signs are generally pointing to a strengthening of the economy.

"Payrolls have grown on average by nearly 100,000 more per month than they did last year, businesses are stockpiled with cash, and consumer debt is more manageable," he said.

"As long as consumption remains on track, which looks to be the case given the steady rise in earnings and overall net worth, economic growth should accelerate from here."

But some said that the markets themselves need more to keep growing, especially as the strong corporate profits growth of last year appears to be easing.

"Like the crocuses and other flowers now poking their heads up from winter lairs, the stock market rally of 2012 has sprung less from presence of supportive conditions than it has from the lack of expected adversity," said a poetic Vaughan Scully of S&P Capital IQ.

"The lack of an expected US economic slowdown (has) helped to spur strong gains in equities in spite of the fact that unemployment is still high, the housing market is still weak, and profit growth is slowing," he said.

The markets are vulnerable to any sign of bad news -- for instance China's downward revision this week of its 2012 growth forecast, to 7.5 percent, he said.

Moreover, he added, S&P Capital IQ data shows that consensus estimates for first quarter earnings per share growth are just 0.8 percent, compared to 8.3 percent in the last quarter of 2011.

"The surge in February nonfarm payrolls arguably creates a strong case for a sustained and indeed strengthening recovery, but the chills of winter probably haven't left for good yet."

The coming week could give a clearer picture of the economy's direction.

The Federal Reserve policy board meets Tuesday, and while not expected to change its ultralow interest rate policy or even hint at any stimulus measures, the picture it paints of economic growth will be closely watched.

Data releases could also help color in the picture: retail sales in February (Tuesday); the February producer price index (Thursday) and the consumer price index (Friday).

Also coming Friday are the University of Michigan consumer sentiment survey and figures on industrial production last month.

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