When you open your quarterly financial statements in the next few weeks, you might be both pleased and puzzled.
Despite the economic doldrums, the stock market put together a sizzling 11 percent return over the past three months, including its best September since 1939.
For a time Thursday, the Dow Jones industrial average appeared headed for 11,000.
But the gains are deceptive, market analysts say. While news about the economy has improved, there's no reason to think it's roaring back. And the big advance was driven by a relatively small number of traders playing with a lot of money.
"I think a lot of this is just misguided optimism," said Rob Arnott, chairman of Research Affiliates, an investment firm in Newport Beach, Calif. "The headwinds we face are pretty daunting."
In other words, few are calling it the beginning of the next bull market -- not with unemployment still near 10 percent and stocks bound in what market technicians call a trading range.
Still, the gains were impressive. In September alone, the Standard & Poor's 500 index rose 9 percent, the Dow almost 8 percent and the Nasdaq composite index 12 percent. Every sector of the market was up.
September is usually the market's worst month. This time, it was the third-best month of any kind in 10 years, narrowly trailing only March 2003 and April 2009, when stocks were bouncing back from meltdowns.
So why the rally? Economic news, while not great, was at least enough to dispel fears of a so-called double-dip recession. The Federal Reserve indicated it was closer to taking new action to help the economic recovery along.
And investors started looking past the November midterm elections and concluding that likely Republican pickups in Congress mean that tax increases are less likely.
The quarter got off to an inauspicious start. On the very first day of July, stocks dipped to what remains their low point of 2010: 1,011 for the S&P 500 index and 9,596 for the Dow in intraday trading.
After rebounding to finish July up 7 percent, the market limped through August. The S&P 500 fell nearly 5 percent, and the major indexes wiped out any gains for the year.
What first changed the tone of the market and started soothing double-dip worries was the Sept. 1 release of figures that showed surprisingly strong growth in the U.S. and Chinese manufacturing sectors.
More news trickled in throughout September that, if not terrific, was at least not bad. Payrolls and orders for durable goods improved, and there was a flurry of corporate deals, plus the hints from the Fed about further help. The rally was on.
While the gains did a lot for millions of 401(k) accounts and other investment holdings, the rally was rather thin, and some market observers say that's a sign it won't last.
Volume on the New York Stock Exchange has been unusually low for the past several weeks. And two important sectors -- financial and health care stocks -- have been lagging the others, showing signs of weakness that mirror the economy.
"In order for this rally to really steam higher, financials have to participate, and we really haven't seen that yet," said King Lip, chief investment officer for Baker Avenue Asset Management in San Francisco.
Investors took far more money out of stock funds than they put in -- more than $42 billion for the quarter and more than $15 billion in September. Meanwhile, cash has moved into bonds for 21 months in a row, according to the Investment Company Institute.
Everyday investors still are scarred from 2008, when some had more than half of their holdings wiped out during the meltdown. About half of American households own stocks, directly or indirectly, and many remain skittish because of the "flash crash" this May, when the Dow plunged nearly 1,000 points in minutes. Regulators are still investigating the sudden nose dive, which might have been triggered by computerized trading.
On top of that, the market is more volatile than usual. An Associated Press-CNBC poll taken in August and September found about three in five investors less confident about buying and selling individual stocks because of the volatility.
Interviews this week with more than two dozen money managers, investment strategists and other experts turned up forecasts that the S&P 500 will be anywhere from 14 percent higher to 25 percent lower by the end of this year.
A government extension of income tax cuts from the past decade could lift stocks further, even though most think the market already has factored in the assumption that it will happen.
The S&P, now up 2 percent in 2010, has been trading largely in a range between 1,040 and 1,230 since mid-May. Analysts say the real test of whether the rally can continue its run will be if investors have enough conviction in the rally to push it through the 1,230 level, up nearly 8 percent from where it is now.
If they don't, there could be a sell-off.
The Associated Press interviewed dozens of stock market experts this week to solicit their opinions about the recent rally and ask about the market's direction. Here is a sampling of their responses, including forecasts of where the Standard & Poor's 500 index will end the year.
Who: Rob Arnott, chairman of Research Affiliates, Newport Beach, Calif.
S&P at end of 2010: Anywhere from up a little to down a lot; between 1,000 and 1,200.
Reasons for rally: Expectations that the Federal Reserve is poised for another round of "quantitative easing," a form of stimulus in which it would buy Treasury bonds to inject money into the economy; optimism that the U.S. will dodge a double-dip recession.
Notable quote: "I think a lot of this is just misguided optimism. The headwinds we face are pretty daunting."
Who: Kate Warne, investment strategist for Edward Jones, St. Louis.
S&P at end of 2010: Slightly higher, perhaps 1,150 to 1,200.
Reasons for rally: Better economic news, the Fed's pledge to take steps to avoid deflation, absence of pre-earnings warnings or other bad news from companies.
Notable quote: "The return of investor confidence may be almost as painfully slow as the economic rebound. But investors who shun stocks today may have regrets tomorrow."
Who: John Praveen, chief investment strategist, Prudential Financial, Newark, N.J.
S&P at end of 2010: 1,300.
Reasons for rally: Fears of a double-dip and deflation were overdone; improved economic growth.
Notable QUOTE: "Markets have always rallied after elections. What we're seeing is just a prelude to that."
Who: King Lip, chief investment officer, Baker Avenue Asset Management, San Francisco.
S&P at end of 2010: 1,200.
Reasons for rally: Midterm elections expected to hand Republicans some seats, resulting in more balanced federal government; upcoming quarterly earnings reports expected to show improved profit.
Notable quote: "People are looking for the fourth quarter as definitely not being in a super rebound scenario, but it looks like the double-dip scenario is fading at this point in time."
Who: Robert Doll, chief equity strategist, BlackRock, New York.
S&P end o f 2010: 1,200.
Reasons for rally: Economic data turned out to be not as bad as investors thought, coupled with rhetoric out of Washington that was more investor-friendly.
Notable quote: "It's amazing that you can get less bad numbers and the market goes up 10 percent. But put that together with the prospect of an election and more signals that the Bush tax cuts will be renewed, and you get this whoosh up."