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Stocks could see more gains; Analysts remain optimistic following good news on economy and EU debt

Stocks are turning out to be a rip-roaring success story. Now, someone should shout April Fools, right?

But so far the joke has been on investors -- and even Wall Street experts -- who didn't imagine that stocks would do so well in three short months.

Consider the impact so far on 401(k) plans. Nearly 85 percent of U.S. stock funds posted gains of more than 10 percent for the year through Tuesday.

A year ago during that same time, about 2 percent of the mutual funds that invest in U.S. stocks had such strong gains, according to data from Morningstar.

"Many of the most beaten-down stocks have come back strongly," said Russel Kinnel, director of fund research for Morningstar.

And what lesson can we learn from that turnaround?

"It can be dangerous to read too much into one year's performance because next year it could easily flip," Kinnel said.

Do individuals believe this rally will last -- especially after seeing the Dow Jones Industrial Average climb above 13,000 during the first quarter of 2012? Not quite.

Christopher Ruth, chief market strategist for Comerica Asset Management Group in Birmingham, said he spoke at a breakfast in Dallas late last month and one man said he was scared to see the Dow around 13,000.

Some investors fear, Ruth said, that the stock market rally went "too far, too fast, too soon."

Lately, Wall Street is talking less about double-dip recessions and more about a double-dose of above-average gains for stocks.

The Standard & Poor's 500 rose 11.4 percent in the fourth quarter of 2011 and gained 12 percent for the first quarter.

Will stocks tank now?

Ruth said he wouldn't assume that the second quarter will be a bad one for investors.

"It could very well be that this momentum carries forward," Ruth said.

Sam Stovall, chief equity strategist at S&P Capital IQ, a research firm, wrote in a report that since 1947, there were eight times that the S&P 500 was up more than 10 percent in a first quarter.

What happened after those strong, early starts?

As for the second quarter, he said, the S&P 500 gained another 3.3 percent on average and the index rose in price six of the eight times.

Yet if results are favorable in the second quarter, Stovall noted, it's usually because of a strong performance in April.

Some market watchers are indeed looking to see a spring pullback of some sort, possibly 5 percent or so.

But overall, other analysts remain optimistic.

No one seems to be seriously warning about the likelihood of a double-dip recession in the U.S. any longer.

The first quarter proved to be a good one for stocks, analysts said, because the dreaded debt crisis in Europe seems far more under control.

Risk, of course, hasn't been outlawed.

"The jury is still out on China," said said David Joy, chief market strategist at Ameriprise Financial.

Some say China is undergoing a major economic slowdown, and the risk exists that China's economic troubles could ignite a global recession.

"I ultimately think China will be fine," Joy said.

Anyone who drives a car, of course, can spot troubling signs, now that gas is $4 a gallon and higher.

Ruth said the U.S. economy would be able to withstand gas prices at this level or slightly higher. But the real risk would be high gas prices -- plus some sort of unknown second shock.

Later in the year, other issues could generate more concern and create more volatility for stocks, too.