TheStreet.com Ratings provides exclusive stock, ETF and mutual fund ratings and commentary based on award-winning, proprietary tools. Its "safety first" approach to investing aims to reduce risk while seeking solid outperformance on a total return basis.NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Bulls and bears can defend their turf every day, but when it comes to the stock market, key signs are pointing up. U.S. companies of various sizes from different industries are beating analysts' second-quarter forecasts, banking and lending have come back to life, and consumer and housing reports are less dour. Since the end of March, the benchmark S&P 500 Index has gained about 23% and is close to crossing 1,000 for the first time since November. While the barrier has more to do with emotion than anything else, it suggests investors are slowly becoming more optimistic. As hundreds of thousands of jobs are still being lost each month, hard times are far from over, but investors unwilling to part with their money are missing an optimal time to buy on the cheap. General Electric ( GE), IBM ( IBM) and Caterpillar ( CAT) have soundly exceeded estimates. There have been surprisingly good results nearly every day, save for a few ( Microsoft ( MSFT) and Ashland ( ASH)). The backbone of the economy may indeed be in better shape than previously thought. Even ground zero for the economic meltdown has shown signs of a pulse. Financial firms Goldman Sachs ( GS), Wells Fargo ( WFC) and JPMorgan Chase ( JPM) surpassed forecasts by 40% or more, while the walking dead, Citigroup ( C) and Bank of America ( BAC), also surprised on the upside. During this run of good fortune for the economy, a key gauge known as the volatility index, or VIX, has been steadily improving. The VIX measures the amount that options investors expect the S&P 500 to change over the next 30 days, quoted as percentage points.