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March 1, 2014

Feb. fixes S&P 500’s Jan. loss

NEW YORK — After two months of trading, the stock market is back where it started.

The Standard & Poor’s 500 index rose 4.3 percent in February, the biggest gain since October 2013, helped by strong corporate earnings and a Federal Reserve that seems to have Wall Street’s back at every turn. But the rise in February must be taken in the context that investors spent the month making up the ground they lost in January.

“February looked a lot like January, just moving in the opposite direction,” said Scott Clemons, chief investment strategist with Brown Brothers Harriman Wealth Management.

Investors are also now staring at a stock market, while numbers-wise is basically where it was on Jan. 1, that is a lot more defensive than it was two months ago.

Utilities and health care stocks — two traditional “safe” places for investors because of their low volatility and higher-than-average dividends — are the biggest gainers so far this year. Utilities are up 5.7 percent in 2014 and health care is up 6.6 percent.

Investor caution was also evident in the bond market, which has done reasonably well in the last two months. The yield on the benchmark U.S. 10-year Treasury note has fallen from 2.97 percent to 2.65 percent in the last two months as investors returned to the relative safety of government debt. The Barclays U.S. Aggregate bond index, which tracks a broad mix of corporate and government bonds, is up 1.6 percent this year.

“The sentiment now is, ‘bonds may not be as bad as I originally thought,”’ said Michael Fredericks, a portfolio manager of the Multi-Asset Income Fund at Blackrock.

February’s rise came in spite of several economic reports that showed the U.S. economy slowed in the previous month.

It started with the January jobs report, which showed employers only created 113,000 jobs that month. It was far fewer than economists had expected. Other economic reports told a similar story. Consumer confidence, manufacturing and the housing market all fell sharply in January.

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