A little confidence went a long way today, as the

Dow Jones Industrial Average soared 260.01 points, or 2.7%, to 9947.54, on the heels of the latest

Consumer Confidence Index report. After a sharp selloff last week, the blue-chip index rallied for the third straight day. Meantime, the

Nasdaq Composite Index made a valiant effort, rising 53.8 points to 1972.2.

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Released this morning, the

confidence number for March came in at 117, compared with economists' forecasts for a 104.2 result. The index has been trending lower since July, when it was at a high of 143. Today's result raises investors' hopes for a revival in consumer spending. But it also lowers expectations for an intermeeting interest rate cut by the

Federal Reserve, since the data shows relative economic strength.

Other forces at work on today's market included a good dose of window dressing, which happens when professional money managers tidy up their portfolios to post gains or clean up their list of holdings before a quarter's end. "It's the last week of the quarter, so people are marking up their portfolios," said Sam Ginzburg, senior managing director of equity trading at

Gruntal

.

Still, it seemed that, for the first time in a long while, investors were feelin' groovy. "The phones are picking up," said Ginzburg. "A little bit of the happiness has come back."

Leading today's gains,

IBM

(IBM) - Get Report

advanced 4.3% to $99.50,

Merck

(MRK) - Get Report

rose 3% to $73.61,

Procter & Gamble

(PG) - Get Report

increased 2.9% to $62.18, and

SBC Communications

(SBC)

lifted 6.4% to $43.90.

Despite today's positive action, the major stock market indices are way off their highs. Just last Thursday afternoon, the Dow was trading in bear-market territory, meaning it was down 20% from its all-time high. The industrials are now approximately 13% off their peak. Meanwhile, the Nasdaq, down 61% from its high, and the

S&P 500, behind by 23%, are on grizzly ground.

Whether or not the stock markets have hit bottom is still up for grabs. "Are people in this for the long haul or for the trade?" asked Bryan Piskorowski, market analyst at

Prudential Securities

. "The answer will unfold in the next few weeks."

On the sidelines of today's rally, blue-chip

Johnson & Johnson

(JNJ) - Get Report

fell 3.6% to $82.31, after the company confirmed yesterday's reports that it is going to buy drug manufacturer

Alza

(AZA)

for $12 billion in stock, its largest deal ever.

After dropping 5% yesterday on concerns about its outlook,

Cisco

(CSCO) - Get Report

Cisco spent most of today on the upside, but it closed down, losing 1.1% to $18.13.Many large-cap stocks were trading higher, though.

Microsoft

(MSFT) - Get Report

rose 2.9% to $58.25,

Juniper

(JNPR) - Get Report

gained 0.5% to $52.74, and

Intel

(INTC) - Get Report

climbed 2.4% to $29.38.

Heading into the second quarter, the earnings outlook could not get much worse. Shares of

Vitesse Semiconductor

(VTSS)

, for example, dropped 16% to $29.06 after it warned after the close Monday that its second-quarter revenue and earnings forecasts were, perhaps, a bit ambitious.

And

TranSwitch

(TXCC)

slid 20.3% to $15.12 after it joined the list of repeat offenders on the warning front, lowering its first-quarter earnings

guidance for the second time in a month.

Market Internals

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International

European markets rallied for a third straight day. London's

FTSE 100

, which hit a 29-month low last Thursday, was climbed 152 points, or 2.7%, to 5728. Across the channel, the Paris

CAC 40

gained 111, or 2.2%, to 5236 and Frankfurt's

Xetra Dax

rose 211, or 3.7%, to 5938.

The euro was lately trading at $0.8980.

Asian markets pulled back severely after recent gains. Hong Kong's

Hang Seng

index, which finally rallied back from 17-month lows Monday, gave back most of its gains overnight. The index closed down 1.9%, or 242.6 points, to 12,707.9. Tokyo's beleaguered

Nikkei 225

dropped 224.0 points, or 1.6%, to 13,638.3.

The dollar was trading at 122.9 yen.

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