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Dow Posts Best First Quarter Since 1999

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Stocks wrapped up their best first quarter in more than a decade with a mixed session on Thursday as investors avoided big bets ahead of a key jobs report.

Sentiment was also dampened by oil prices, which hit their highest levels since 2008.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average shed 31 points, or 0.2%, at 12,320. The S&P 500 slipped 2 points or 0.2%, at 1,326, and the Nasdaq Composite edged higher by 4 points, or 0.1% at 2,781.

Still, the Dow finished the calendar first quarter with a gain of 6.7%, the index's best performance to start a new year since 1999. The S&P rose 5.4% for the three-month period while the Nasdaq climbed 4.8%.

The steady rally to start 2011 came as March showed some volatility as the markets experienced a slight correction in the wake of the devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan and discord in Libya but the pullback proved short lived.

Investors have chosen to focus on domestic economic indicators such as jobs and consumer spending for signs that the U.S. economy is resilient to global concerns. So far, those reports have been positive, although the future outlook is still challenging.

3M (MMM), Coca-Cola (KO) and McDonalds (MCD) topped the Dow Thursday while Intel (INTC), Home Depot (HD) and American Express (AXP) were the biggest laggards.

"There's a couple of different things going on," said Lawrence Creatura, portfolio manager at Federated Investors, accounting for the day's mostly flat session. "We have a significant data point coming out tomorrow in the March jobs report and we're in that moment of the calendar that is the pre-earnings lull before the storm. Most companies are in quiet periods and there isn't a lot of company-specific information. That'll change in a week or so."

As far as the upcoming earnings season is concerned, Creatura said expectations are for continued growth despite somewhat difficult comparisons with the same period a year ago. According to the latest Thomson Reuters data, analysts are currently projecting profits to increase 13.2% for the companies comprising the S&P 500 in the first quarter with the materials, energy, industrials and technology sectors leading the way.

"Despite some of the global and domestic negatives, business has been good," he said. "What's going to be most important in this round of earnings calls will be the forward-looking statements. Investors will be looking for guidance on how management teams will be handling increasing input costs."
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