1st Quarter Ends swinging between Gains and Losses in U.S. Markets

U.S. stocks swung between gains and losses as investors debated whether the best first-quarter rally for the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index since 1998 has outpaced growth prospects in the world’s largest economy.

Technology and financial shares, which have led the S&P 500’s gains this year, had the biggest losses today.

Bank of America Corp. (BAC) and Apple Inc. (AAPL) declined at least 1.1 %. Gauges of utilities and companies that sell consumer necessities, the groups least-tied to economic growth, advanced.

The S&P 500 rose 0.1 % to 1,404.95 at 11:04 a.m. in New York after climbing as much as 0.5 % and slipping 0.1 % earlier. The gauge is up almost 12 % in the first quarter.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average rose 30.72 points, or 0.2 %, to 13,176.54.

More than $3.6 trillion was restored to U.S. equity values since the S&P 500 reached last year’s low in October amid better-than-estimated economic data.

The index climbed 28 % from Oct. 3 through yesterday. The rally sent the S&P 500 to about 14.5 times reported earnings, the highest valuation since July while below the average since 1954 of 16.4.

The S&P 500 has increased about 2.9 % in March (SPX), rallying for a fourth straight month, as Bloomberg stated.

The Dow has climbed 1.7 % since the end of February and is poised to cap a sixth month of gains. Both gauges are headed for the longest stretches of monthly gains since 2009.

Stocks rose earlier today as government data showed U.S. consumer spending increased 0.8 % in February, the most in seven months. Separately, the Thomson Reuters/University of Michigan final index of consumer sentiment for March rose to 76.2. Economists projected a reading of 74.5.

Investors also watched the latest attempts in taming Europe’s debt crisis. European (SXXP) governments capped fresh rescue lending at 500 billion Euros ($666 billion), after a Germany-led coalition opposed a further expansion of the firewall.

 Profit margins are poised to start falling in the U.S. as they have worldwide.

S&P 500 margins have narrowed by 0.2 %age point this year, to 13.8 %. The comparable declines for companies in the European (SXXP) and Japanese benchmarks are 2 points and 0.9 point, respectively.

Shrinking margins may weigh on earnings in the next few quarters and hurt stocks, the report said. Analysts expect S&P 500 profit increases to accelerate through year-end, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. The projected growth rate for the fourth quarter is 17 %, up from 0.2 % this quarter.