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Stocks Post Best First Quarter Since 1998

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) --The major U.S. equity indices wrapped up their best first quarter since 1998 with a mixed finish on Friday.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average and S&P 500 both gained ground, helped by a positive read on consumer sentiment and the eurozone's move to bolster its rescue fund. The Nasdaq Composite, however, slipped as Apple (AAPL - Get Report) dropped lost 1.7% and dropped back below $600 for the first time in a week after a labor advocacy group reported difficult worker conditions at Foxconn, a major supplier to the iPhone and iPad maker.

The S&P 500, which has increased 12% year-to-date, has only seen double-digit first-quarter gains 11 times since 1928. The index was up 5 points, or 0.4%, to close at 1408 on Friday.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average was higher by 66 points, or 0.5%, to finish at 13,212. The blue-chip index rose more than 994 points in the first quarter, its biggest point gain ever, according to Dow Jones Indexes. After booking a 5% gain in 2011, the index is up 8.1% so far this year.

The Nasdaq, which notched its seventh consecutive week of gains, was down 4 points, or 0.1%, to close at 3092. The tech-heavy index surged 18.7% in the first quarter.

European stocks rose Friday after eurozone finance ministers agreed to strengthen the bloc's debt crisis firewall to about €700 billion ($931 billion). The leaders agreed on the lowest figure accepted by nations, including Germany, Finland and the Netherlands, raising questions as to whether the plan will be enough to ward off the crisis.

Rising debt yields in Italy and Spain are of particular concern as the effects of the cheap loans from the European Central Bank that started at the end of last year have begun to wear off.

According to the plan agreed upon on Friday, the cap on the bloc's firewall will be raised starting July 2012, which is when the European Stability Mechanism, or the permanent bailout facility for the region, will start operating. At that time also, the European Financial Stability Facility, or the region's temporary rescue fund will starting making loans.

London's FTSE finished up 0.46% and Germany's DAX gained 1.04%. In Asia, Japan's Nikkei Average closed down 0.3% on Friday and Hong Kong's Hang Seng index finished lower by 0.3%.

Also helping to lift stocks were positive signs on the consumer side of the domestic economy. The University of Michigan's survey of consumer sentiment reached its highest level in more than a year in March, coming in at a level of 76.2 from 75.3 in February. Economists expected the index to come in at 74.7.

In other U.S. economic news, the Commerce Department reported that spending among American consumers rose 0.8% in February, exceeding the estimated 0.6% rise and adding to the 0.4% increase from the prior month. The latest increase in spending was also the largest since July.

"As we already had the monthly employment report, we knew that earnings and hours rose in February suggesting a healthy enough gain for wages and salaries," says Dan Greenhaus, strategist with BTIG. "Put simply, while people are making more money they aren't receiving less support from the government. This has no doubt been a boost to consumption."

Personal income rose 0.2%, compared with the increase of 0.4% that economists were expecting. Incomes rose 0.2% in January.

The Chicago Fed's purchasing managers index came in at 62.2 in March, lower than the expectations for a read of 63 and down from the previous month's figure of 64.

In corporate news, Research In Motion (RIMM), the troubled BlackBerry maker, missed fourth-quarter analysts' expectations, said it would no longer provide quarterly forecasts, and announced former co-CEO Jim Balsillie is resigning from the board. RIM posted fiscal fourth-quarter non-GAAP earnings of 80 cents a share on revenue of $4.2 billion. Analysts were expecting profit of 81 cents a share on revenue of $4.5 billion. Shares were up 7.1% at $14.71.

Dunkin' Brands Group (DNKN), the owner of Dukin' Donuts and Baskin-Robbins, announced a public offering of 26.4 million shares of common stock at $29.50 a share. Shares were up 0.1% to $30.08.

Yahoo! (YHOO) shares were down 0.5% at $15.22 as AllThingsDigital reported that the Internet company is preparing for layoffs next week and restructuring the week after.

May oil futures rose 24 cents to $103.02 a barrel, while June gold futures added $17 to $1,671.90 an ounce and gained 6.5% for the quarter.

The benchmark 10-year Treasury was down 16/32, pushing the yield to 2.22%, while the U.S. dollar index was down 0.3% to $78.98.

-- Written by Andrea Tse and Chao Deng in New York.

>To contact the writer of this article, click here: Andrea Tse.

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