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A third straight annual gain for stocks? Just maybe . . .

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Wednesday's big rally on Wall Street puts the stock market back within striking distance of posting a gain for 2011 -- if the bulls can stay in control in December.

That's a big "if," of course, given the still-dangerous situation in Europe.

But the U.S. market’s relative resilience in November, compared with most foreign markets, hinted that many investors were reluctant to bail out of American equities despite Europe's woes.

Looking solely at U.S. economic data for the month, stock investors had a decent reason to stay put: Most of the reports showed the recovery continuing, although at a modest pace.

That was reinforced by data Wednesday on Chicago-area manufacturing, private-sector payroll growth and the Federal Reserve’s latest “beige book” report on U.S. economic conditions.

Those reports, along with the Fed’s surprise move with other major central banks to try to bolster Europe’s struggling banking system, drove the Dow Jones industrial average up 490 points, or 4.2%, to 12,045.68.

That lifted the Dow back into the black for 2011. The 30-stock index is up 4% for the year as November ends.

But most broader indexes still are in the red. The Standard & Poor’s 500 is down 0.8% for the year. The Nasdaq composite is down 1.2%, and the Russell 2,000 small-stock index is off 5.9%.

If the market continues to advance it could put more pressure on hedge fund managers and other big-money players to hop aboard, hoping to salvage their performance for 2011. They also know that December historically has been a good month for the market.

Just by the math, U.S. stocks should have an easier time finishing the year with gains compared with most foreign markets.

The average European blue-chip stock is down 16.6% this year. The Japanese market is down 17.5%, Brazilian stocks are off 17.9% and the Canadian market is down 9.2%.

If Wall Street can rally in December, major stock indexes could post their third-straight annual gain.

The Dow industrials rose 11% in 2010 after an 18.8% jump in 2009. Those gains followed the 33.8% crash in 2008.

The S&P 500 index was up 12.8% last year after a 23.4% advance in 2009. The S&P plunged 38.5% in 2008.

The Russell 2,000 index will have a harder time getting close to its gains of 2009 and 2010. It was up 25% in both of those years after tumbling 34.8% in 2008.

RELATED:

Dow has best day since March 2009

Central banks join forces to ease debt crisis

Americans feel more confident, but should they?

-- Tom Petruno

Photo: On the New York Stock Exchange floor Wednesday. Credit: Justin Lane / EPA

 
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