Stocks mixed on last day of strong year for market

Stock indexes were mixed Friday in quiet New Year's Eve trading.

Stock indexes were mixed Friday in quiet New Year's Eve trading.

The last day of the year contrasted with a sometimes gut-wrenching 2010. Despite investors' concerns about the U.S. economy, the possibility of European countries defaulting on debt, the Standard & Poor's 500 index and the Dow Jones industrial average are both up about 14 percent for the year, including dividends. The Nasdaq composite index, meanwhile, is up about 18 percent for the year after dividends.

In midday trading trading Friday, the Dow Jones industrial average gained 3 points, or less than 0.1 percent, to 11,573. The Standard & Poor's 500 index rose less than a point to 1,258. The Nasdaq composite index dipped 9, or 0.3 percent, to 2,654.

The Dow is poised to end the year at its highest level since August 2008, before the height of the financial crisis. The S&P might rise to its best December in 20 years.

The numbers hide the fact that it was a rocky year. Stocks plunged in the spring after Greece required an emergency bailout to deal with its debt crisis. That raised concerns about debt issues in other European countries, including Ireland, which needed a bailout later in the year.

The May 6 "flash crash," which sent the Dow down to a loss of nearly 1,000 points in less than a half-hour, also rattled investors. The Dow fell 14 percent from a high of 11,205.03 on April 26 to its low of 9,686.48 on July 2.

But stocks came back in the last part of the year after the Federal Reserve announced a $600 billion bond-buying program to lower interest rates and stimulate the economy. Bond yields fell to levels down not seen since the 1950s.

The yield on the 10-year Treasury note rose to a yearly high of just under 4 percent in April and then plunged as low as 2.38 percent in October. That contributed to a historic drop in mortgage rates that brought 30-year fixed-rate loans to a low of 4.17 percent early in November.

"It was a market that needed stimulus and responded miraculously," said Quincy Krosby, the chief market strategist at Prudential. "Corporate fundamentals were clearly excellent, but to get the push that the market needed to keep it going it needed more buyers."

Investors were also encouraged by an extension of Bush-era tax cuts and improving economic reports on unemployment, retail sales and consumer confidence, which suggested that Americans were beginning to spend again. By the end of December, investors began moving money back into U.S. stock funds after selling for every week since May.

Whether the gains will continue into 2011 will depend on a better jobs market, consumers who are more confident and the ability of corporations to earn more money from higher revenue rather than cost cutting.

Many on Wall Street are optimistic that the bull market will not end next year.

"All of the economic indicators are pointing to stronger growth next year," said Peter Cardillo, chief market economist at New York-based brokerage firm Avalon Partners Inc.

Consumer discretionary stocks in the S&P 500 have risen 26 percent this year, making them the best performers of the 10 industry groups in the index. Health care and utility stocks have been the worst performers, rising less than 1 percent for the year.

The Russell 2000 index, made up of small-cap stocks, had the best overall performance of domestic stock indexes. It returned 27.8 percent in 2010, including dividends.

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