Dow Shakes Off Growth Fears, Adds Fourth Day to Winning Streak

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The blue chips capped a tepid trading session in positive territory as market participants overcame anxiety about the economy in Asia and Europe and looked ahead to a Fed meeting later in the week.

Today's Markets

The Dow Jones Industrial Average rose 37.7 points, or 0.29%, to 12960, the S&P 500 edged higher by 0.22 point, or 0.02%, to 1371 and the Nasdaq Composite slid 4.7 points, or 0.16%, to 2984.

The Dow has now climbed for four-straight trading sessions. While the major market averages have posted a lackluster performance so far this month, the broad S&P 500 is up 9% for the year.

Trading was light on the day as market participants brushed off worries about China and were cautious to make bets ahead of the Federal Reserve meeting slated for later in the week. Utilities performed the best by far, with companies like Consolidated Edison (NYSE:ED) rallying more than 1%.

ExxonMobil (NYSE:XOM) was the best-performing Dow component, contributing roughly 10 points to the blue-chip average's overall gains. Merck (NYSE:MKR), Procter & Gamble (NYSE:PG) and Wal-Mart (NYSE:WMT) also posted sizeable gains. Laggards included JPMorgan Chase (NYSE:JPM), Caterpillar (NYSE:CAT) and Bank of America (NYSE:BAC).

Clouds Loom over Chinese Economy

China recorded its biggest trade gap in at least a decade in February as imports surged 39.6% and exports increased by a less-than-expected 18.4%. The country's economy, the second biggest in the world, is driven by exports so it may prove to be a drag on its broader economic output. Just last week, the country cut its 2012 growth target by 0.5-percentage points to 7.5%, the lowest level since 2004.

However, losses losses in Asian and European bourses were kept in check by hopes the weakening data may push China's central bank to loosen monetary policy and lingering optimism over a strong jobs report in the U.S. The U.S. Labor Department said last week the biggest economy in the world added 227,000 jobs last month as the private sector expanded and the government continued contracting.

In Europe, the Italian economy contracted 0.7% in the fourth quarter of 2011, meaning one of the continent's core economies is officially in a recession.

The U.S. federal budget deficit hit $232 billion in February, compared with $223 billion during the same month in 2011, the Treasury Department said. The cumulative deficit for 2012 is at $581 billion, narrower than the $641 billion at the same point last year.

In the foreign exchange market, the euro slumped 0.08% to $1.3113, while the U.S. dollar edged lower by 0.05% against a basket of six world currencies that are tracked by the dollar index.

Commodities came under pressure from worries about demand in China. The benchmark crude oil contract traded in New York dipped $1.06, or 0.99%, to $106.34 a barrel. Wholesale New York Harbor RBOB gasoline fell a penny, or 0.28%, to $3.323 a gallon.

A gallon of regular at the pump costs $3.80 on average nationwide, up from $3.51 last month and $3.56 last year, according to the AAA Fuel Gauge report.

In metals, gold ticked lower by $11.70, or 0.68%, to $1,700 a troy ounce. The yield on the 10-year U.S. Treasury rose slightly to 2.036%.

Foreign Markets 

European blue chips fell 0.04%, the English FTSE 100 rose 0.09% to 5893 and the German DAX rose 0.31% to 6901.

In Asia, the Japanese Nikkei 225 fell 0.4% to 9890 and the Chinese Hang Seng edged higher by 0.23% to 21134.