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A strong February wipes out market's January loss

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After two months of trading, the stock market is back where it started.

The Standard & Poor's 500 index rose 4.3 percent in February, the biggest gain since October 2013, helped by strong corporate earnings and a Federal Reserve that seems to have Wall Street's back at every turn. But the rise in February must be taken in the context that investors spent the month making up the ground they lost in January.

"February looked a lot like January, just moving in the opposite direction," said Scott Clemons, chief investment strategist with Brown Brothers Harriman Wealth Management.

Investors are also now staring at a stock market, while numbers-wise is basically where it was on Jan. 1, that is a lot more defensive than it was two months ago.

Utilities and health care stocks — two traditional "safe" places for investors because of their low volatility and higher-than-average dividends — are the biggest gainers so far this year. Utilities are up 5.7 percent in 2014 and health care is up 6.6 percent.

Investor caution was also evident in the bond market, which has done reasonably well in the last two months. The yield on the benchmark U.S. 10-year Treasury note has fallen from 2.97 percent to 2.65 percent in the last two months as investors returned to the relative safety of government debt. The Barclays U.S. Aggregate bond index, which tracks a broad mix of corporate and government bonds, is up 1.6 percent this year.

"The sentiment now is, 'bonds may not be as bad as I originally thought,'" said Michael Fredericks, a portfolio manager of the Multi-Asset Income Fund at Blackrock.

February's rise came in spite of several economic reports that showed the U.S. economy slowed in the previous month.

It started with the January jobs report, which showed employers only created 113,000 jobs that month. It was far fewer than economists had expected. Other economic reports told a similar story. Consumer confidence, manufacturing and the housing market all fell sharply in January.

Investors blamed the weather, and rightly so. Many companies, particularly retailers, said winter storms of the past two months dramatically impacted their business. Macy's said that at one time in January, 30 percent of its stores were closed because of inclement weather.

Home Depot had a similar story.

"We don't like to use weather as an excuse but we think we probably lost $100 million in the month of January," Home Depot's chief financial officer, Carol Tome, said in a conference call with investors this week. "Atlanta was frozen, for example. It was tough here."

Even with the economic concerns, investors were able to set aside the volatility of January for three reasons, market watchers said.

First, corporate earnings for the fourth quarter overall turned out to be pretty good. Earnings at companies in the S&P 500 index grew 8.5 percent over the same period last year, according to FactSet. Revenue growth also picked up, albeit slightly.

The Federal Reserve, once again, also came to the market's side. Janet Yellen, who in February took over the role as chair of the Federal Reserve, reaffirmed that the central bank plans to keep its market-friendly, low interest rate policies in place for the foreseeable future.

Lastly, weather, by its very nature, is temporary.

Spring will come, at some point, and the winter storms that have kept businesses closed and consumers away from stores will fade, investors say. All that pent-up demand will help the economy recover some of the ground lost in January and February.

"I think 70 percent, 80 percent, of the weakness we saw in January and February was weather-related and we will pick up strength in the spring thaw," said Bob Doll, chief equity strategist at Nuveen Asset Management.

Investors will have less information to work with in March than they did in February.

Earnings season is basically over. Of the companies in the S&P 500 index, 484 have reported their results, as have all 30 members of the Dow, so investors won't have any corporate earnings news to respond to.

In the absence of company news, investors would typically look to the steady stream of economic data to find direction. However the severe winter weather of last two months is likely to make the upcoming economic reports even more difficult to interpret.

"You're going to be able to put on spin on any report: 'well that better than it should have been' or 'well, it was the weather,'" Clemons said. "We'll get more trustworthy numbers in April."

On Friday, the S&P 500 rose 5.16 points, or 0.3 percent, to 1,859.45. It was the second all-time closing high for the S&P 500 in a row. The S&P 500 is now up 0.6 percent for the year.

The Dow Jones industrial average rose 49.06 points, or 0.3 percent, to 16,321.76. The Nasdaq composite lost 10.81 points, or 0.3 percent, to 4,308.12.

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  1. Socialized medicine works great for white people in Scandanavia. It works well in Costa Rica for a population that is partly white and partly mestizo. I don't really see Obamacare as something aimed against whites. I think that is a Republican canard designed to elicit support from white people for republican candidates who don't care about them any more than democrats care about the non-whites they pander to with their phony maneuvers. But what is different between Costa Rica nd the Scandanavian nations on one hand and the US on the other? SIZE. Maybe the US is just too damn big. Maybe it just needs to be divided into smaller self governing pieces like when the old Holy Roman Empire was dismantled. Maybe we are always trying the same set of solutions for different kinds of people as if we were all the same. Oh-- I know-- that is liberal dogma, that we are all the same. Which is the most idiotic American notion going right back to the propaganda of 1776. All men are different and their differences are myriad and that which is different is not equal. The state which pretends men are all the same is going to force men to be the same. That is what America does here, that is what we do in our stupid overseas wars, that is how we destroy true diversity and true difference, and we are all as different groups of folks, feeling the pains of how capitalism is grinding us down into equally insignificant proletarian microconsumers with no other identity whether we like it or not. And the Marxists had this much right about the War of Independence: it was fundamentally a war of capitalist against feudal systems. America has been about big money since day one and whatever gets in the way is crushed. Health care is just another market and Obamacare, to the extent that it Rationalizes and makes more uniform a market which should actually be really different in nature and delivery from place to place-- well that will serve the interests of the biggest capitalist stakeholders in health care which is not Walmart for Gosh Sakes it is the INSURANCE INDUSTRY. CUI BONO Obamacare? The insurance industry. So republicans drop the delusion pro capitalist scales from your eyes this has almost nothing to do with race or "socialism" it has to do mostly with what the INSURANCE INDUSTRY wants to have happen in order to make their lives and profits easier.

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