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Stocks Struggle For Direction In Early Trading

The index has now recovered all of its losses from the recession and the financial crisis that followed. Investors who put their dividends back into the market have done even better. A $10,000 investment in the S&P back in October 2007 would be worth $11,270.

On any other day, a market gain of six points would go unheralded but not after the turmoil that began in late 2008 and persisted through a slow, sometimes stalled recovery.

The S&P 500 is a barometer that gauges market performance. And while professional investors might scoff at using it to decide when to buy and sell, the breaking of an old record can be psychologically important.

However, many obstacles still loom.

The U.S. economy is stable, but growth is anemic. Unemployment is 7.7 percent, versus 4.7 percent, the last time the S&P notched a record. The European debt crisis is far from resolved. And some investors are concerned that the market's gains are being fueled by the Federal Reserve's easy money policy and will disappear once the Fed reverses course.

The crisis of the moment is Cyprus, the Mediterranean island country that struggled this week to get an emergency bailout. For many investors, the bailout deal was a reminder of Europe's lingering economic problems. Elsewhere, Italy failed to set up a new government this week, raising fears that the country will be unable to manage its deep debts.

On Thursday, U.S. economic news was mixed.

The U.S. economy grew faster than first estimated in the fourth quarter, the government reported. But the growth, an annual rate of 0.4 percent, was still weak. The number of Americans seeking unemployment benefits jumped for the second straight week. Longer-term, though, applications for benefits have been declining since November.

In Europe, Cyprus reopened its banks after closing them for nearly two weeks to keep depositors from making panicked withdrawals. Portugal reported that its budget deficit was widening.

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