US STOCKS-Wall St gains, with S&P 500 above key level

  * Quarter-end window dressing boosts market
  * Earnings optimism stays; Oracle to report after the bell
  * Dow up 0.7 pct, S&P up 0.8 pct, Nasdaq up 1.3 pct
 * For up-to-the-minute market news see [STXNEWS/US]
 (Updates to midday, changes byline)
 By Caroline Valetkevitch
 NEW YORK, March 24 (Reuters) - U.S. stocks rose on
Thursday, helped by optimism about earnings and investors
buying the quarter's high performers, while the S&P 500's push
above a key level could signal further gains.
 The S&P 500 broke above its 50-day moving average at
1,305, and analysts said the market may have gotten past the
worst of its recent pullback.
 "What I saw yesterday and today is a stabilization of the
market," said Bruce Zaro, chief technical strategist at Delta
Global Asset Management in Boston.
 "There have been a few good earnings reports that have
given investors a bit more confidence that earnings are likely
to hold ... so the story will continue that the rally has been
built on strong earnings momentum," he said.
 The S&P 500 is up 24 percent since the start of September
but briefly dipped into negative territory for the year
recently amid worries about high oil prices and the disaster
in Japan.
 The S&P 500 consumer discretionary index (.GSPD: Quote, Profile, Research) was up
1.5 percent after electronics retailer Best Buy  (BBY.N: Quote, Profile, Research)
reported better-than-expected earnings on strong smartphone
sales. Best Buy's stock, was down 2.9 percent at $30.93,
reversing earlier gains that took it as high as $32.98.
 Oracle (ORCL.O: Quote, Profile, Research), due to report after the close, gained 1.5
percent to $31.88 and supported the Nasdaq, which was up more
than 1 percent.
 The Dow Jones industrial average (.DJI: Quote, Profile, Research) was up 89.34
points, or 0.74 percent, at 12,175.37. The Standard & Poor's
500 Index (.SPX: Quote, Profile, Research) was up 10.96 points, or 0.84 percent, at
1,308.50. The Nasdaq Composite Index (.IXIC: Quote, Profile, Research) was up 34.31
points, or 1.27 percent, at 2,732.61.
 With the market near the end of the quarter, portfolio
managers will buy equities as they execute window dressing,
and hedge funds will cover short positions that are under
pressure.
 The S&P energy index (.GSPE: Quote, Profile, Research) is among leading sectors for
the quarter, with gains so far of 13.5 percent. The index was
up 0.3 percent on Thursday.
 A semiconductor index (.SOX: Quote, Profile, Research) was up 2.5 percent.
 Options investors, meanwhile, placed more defensive bets
on the market.
 S&P 100 index (.OEX: Quote, Profile, Research) traders were looking for a
correction, though, as the put/call ratio surged near a
five-year high on Wednesday, according to Jason Goepfert,
president of sentimentrader.com.
 "Even during the past six months, such spikes in that
ratio have led to more short-term weakness than strength," he
said.
 Red Hat Inc (RHT.N: Quote, Profile, Research) surged 17,1 percent to $46.82 after a
brokerage upgraded the stock. The company's earnings topped
estimates late Wednesday. [ID:nWNAB0203]
 Earnings growth is expected to help the market overcome
worries about unrest in the Middle East and North Africa and
Japan's crisis this year. The S&P 500 was forecast to end the
year 11 percent higher, according to a Reuters poll released
on Thursday.
 <^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^
 The S&P 500 will finish the year with double-digit gains,
unfazed by Japan's nuclear crisis or unrest in the Middle East
and North Africa, a Reuters poll found. For details, see
[ID:nN22164148]
^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^>
  (Reporting by Caroline Valetkevitch; Additional reporting by
Doris Frankel in Chicago and Angela Moon in New York; Editing
by Jan Paschal.







US STOCKS-Wall St gains, with S&P 500 above key level