US STOCKS-Wall St inches up as investors attempt push higher
* Markets little changed as investors attempt to continue rally
* Strong retail sales put floor under market
* Retail sector gains; Coach climbs after upgrade
* Dow up 0.1 pct, S&P 500 up 0.2 pct, Nasdaq up 0.2 pct
By Leah Schnurr
NEW YORK, March 13 (Reuters) - U.S. stocks crept higher on Wednesday as investors attempted to extend the rally that has taken the Dow to all-time highs, buoyed by surprisingly strong retail sales that suggested the economy has traction.
Moves have been muted in recent days as investors consolidate positions after a strong run-up in the first three months of the year. Still, weakness in stocks has been met with buying, which helped propel the Dow on Tuesday to a new record and its eighth day of gains in a row.
That appeared to be the case again on Wednesday as indexes recovered from initial weakness by the early afternoon. If the Dow finishes higher, it will be the longest consecutive run since November 1996.
The broader S&P 500 is within striking distance of its all-time closing high of 1,565.15.
Signs of strength in the economy and the Federal Reserve's easy monetary policy have helped U.S. equities accelerate their advance. The blue-chip Dow is up more than 10 percent for the year and the benchmark S&P 500 index has gained 9 percent.
"In previous market tops, we've seen valuations get stretched. We've seen certain parts of the market overheated," said Mark Lehmann, president at JMP Securities, an investment bank based in San Francisco.
"Everything seems relatively tempered for a market that's been making new highs almost every day, and I think that's a relatively positive backdrop."
Wednesday's retail sales report reinforced the view that the U.S. economy has momentum, even with the obstacles the recovery is facing. Sales increased 1.1 percent in February, the largest increase since September.
Investors had been looking for signs of any impact on spending from stubbornly high unemployment and a higher payroll tax that went into effect at the start of the year.
The Morgan Stanley retail index gained 0.7 percent.
Coach shares rose 1.2 percent to $49.38 after Citigroup raised its rating on the luxury leather goods company's stock to "buy" from "neutral." Earlier, the stock had risen as high as $50.09 - up 2.6 percent from Tuesday's close.
The Dow Jones industrial average edged up 11.60 points, or 0.08 percent, to 14,461.66. The Standard & Poor's 500 Index gained 2.27 points, or 0.15 percent, to 1,554.75. The Nasdaq Composite Index added 4.84 points, or 0.15 percent, to 3,247.16.
Walgreen jumped 4.4 percent to $42.85 after UBS raised its rating to a "buy" from "neutral", and lifted its price target to $48 from $41 on the stock of the largest U.S. drugstore chain.
But Express Inc shares slid 8.2 percent to $17.30 after the apparel retailer posted fourth-quarter earnings and said it was off to a slow start in the first quarter. The chain caters to 20- to 30-year-olds.
Spectrum Pharmaceuticals shares lost 34.8 percent to $8.10 after the biotechnology company forecast full-year sales well below analysts' estimates.
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