Wall Street looks to extend the rally into April

After a stellar first-quarter performance, investors are hoping the stock market can maintain its momentum into the holiday-shortened week ahead.

The major indexes all posted gains last week, closing out a blockbuster quarter.

In the first three months of 2012, the Dow Jones industrial average gained 8.1%, the SP rose 12% and the Nasdaq advanced 19%.

It was the biggest first-quarter gain for the Dow and SP 500 since 1998, while the Nasdaq logged its best first quarter since 1991.

If history is any guide, April will be another strong month.

The SP 500 has risen every April for the past five years, according to Schaeffer’s Investment Research. The index has returned an average of 4.5% in April over the same period, making it the best month for the market by far.

Ryan Detrick, senior technical strategist at Schaeffer’s Investment Research, expects stocks to continue moving higher on improving economic data in the United States.

“We continue to think the overall economic backdrop is steadily improving when you look at the jobs, manufacturing and consumer confidence data,” said Detrick.

The gains in the first quarter were driven by improving economic data in the United States and easing concerns about the debt crisis in Europe. Stocks have also been boosted by expectations that the Federal Reserve will continue to support the economy, even as the outlook improves.

Stocks could find additional support if corporate earnings exceed investors’ very low expectations, said Detrick. The first-quarter earnings season unofficially gets underway later in the month when Alcoa reports results on April 10.

Wall Street raised its Apple estimates 24.4% in 90 days

Overall, SP 500 earnings are forecast to slip 0.5% in the first quarter from the same period in 2011, according to FactSet. That would be the first time corporate profits declined since the third quarter of 2009.

In the week ahead, however, investors will be on watch for signs the U.S. economic recovery is gaining steam.

“The market will be looking for reasons to move higher, go sidewise or start to consolidate,” said Quincy Krosby, market strategist with Prudential Financial in Newark, N.J. “Investors will be focused on the data next week, particularly the employment and manufacturing numbers.”

The main event will be Friday’s non-farm payrolls report from the Labor Department. Economists expect the report to show that employers added between 215,000 and 225,000 jobs in March, after a gain of 227,000 jobs in February.

But stock investors won’t get a chance to immediately respond, because the U.S. stock market will be dark for Good Friday. The bond market, meanwhile, will close early.

Investors might put extra emphasis on Wednesday’s report on private-sector payrolls from ADP and the weekly jobless claims data Thursday, said Krosby.

Early in the week, the focus will be squarely on global manufacturing activity, with surveys of purchasing managers in the United States, Europe and China.

The official Chinese purchasing manager index, or PMI, which comes out Sunday, is expected to fall slightly to 50.8 in March from 51 in February, according to Nomura Securities.

IPOs close out banner quarter

On Monday, the eurozone PMI is expected to hold steady at 47.7 for March. In the United States, the ISM manufacturing index is expected to edge up to 53 in March from 52.4 in February.

“The market should be driven by the outlook for global growth as defined by global PMI indices,” said Nick Kalivas, market strategist at Hadrian Partners.

Meanwhile, investors hope to get some insight into the Federal Reserve’s policy-making process on Tuesday, when the central bank will release minutes from its most recent meeting.

On Wednesday, the governing council of the European Central Bank will meet in Frankfurt, with a press conference featuring president Mario Draghi to follow.

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