As snow piled up on Wall Street, traders noted Jan. 26 as a special "big, round number day."
The Dow Jones Industrial Average -- a measure of the value of 30 of the nation's biggest stocks -- briefly passed the 12,000 mark for the first time since the summer of 2008. At the end of the day, it closed at 11,985.30, up 0.07 percent and still on a celebratory note.
At 10:15 a.m., the big board showed the Dow crossing the 12K mark as positive news about new home sales and unemployment claims pushed traders into a buying mood. Investors have not seen the milestone number on the big board since June 17, 2008.
While it may be nice to see the number bouncing back to the 12,000 level, investors still are suffering the effects of the financial crisis. The Dow's importance is, in practical terms, just mental. It is still 18 percent below its all-time high close of 14,164.53 in October 2007.
However, during the heat of the financial crisis in early March 2009, the Dow bottomed out at approximately 6,547. Since then, it's jumped 83 percent as the crisis passed and the economy has started to get its footing.
"We think there's considerably more room for the market to go, particularly in the large-cap arena," said Randy Bateman of Huntington Situs Fund.
The biggest stocks have lagged behind those of smaller companies during the past two and a half years, he said.
"That small cap strength, we think, will serve as a catalyst or a prompter for the larger caps to improve even more than now," he said.
What's next for stocks? Bateman said 13,000 isn't out of the realm of possibility this year, and there's even a shot at the previous all-time high of around 14,000.
"The catalyst will be small and mid-cap growth, plus a lack of good alternatives: Money funds, now, are paying practically nothing, while the yield on the Dow is 2.5 percent -- as good as a 10-year Treasury," he said.
In addition, corporate balance sheets have $1.8 trillion sitting in cash.
"That cash is going to be expended in the form of dividends and used for stock buybacks," he said. "You're going to see more M&A activity as firms use that cash to buy out their competition."
However, other economic issues are barriers to a stock market boom.
"We also know the U.S. must resolve problems such as high unemployment, growing government debt and a home-foreclosure mess before its economy can fully get back on its feet," said John Prestbo, editor and executive director of Dow Jones Indexes.
"Those issues are going to bedevil the U.S. for a long time," Prestbo added, "which is why investors shouldn't interpret reaching 12,000 as the market's escape from all potholes with nothing but a smooth road ahead."