* Alcoa to report after market closes, could set initial tone
* Earnings expected to grow, but may struggle to top forecasts
* Consumer staples lead on the day, Monster beverage jumps
* Lufkin stock jumps almost 38 pct on GE’s plan to buy company
* Indexes: Dow flat, S&P up 0.3 pct, Nasdaq up 0.3 pct
By Ryan Vlastelica
NEW YORK, April 8 (Reuters) - U.S. stocks rose slightly in a volatile session on Monday as investors were reluctant to make large bets going into an earnings season that is expected to be lackluster.
Forecasts for first-quarter earnings have been scaled back dramatically, with profits seen rising just 1.6 percent from the year-ago quarter, according to Thomson Reuters data. In January, earnings were seen rising 4.3 percent.
The drop in profit expectations has come amid an economy that could be hitting a slow patch, with last week’s March payroll report severely below expectations. Weak corporate results could give investors further reasons to sell, pushing both the Dow and S&P 500 back from recent all-time closing highs.
The season unofficially starts after the market closes with results from Alcoa Inc, the first Dow component to report, though many more bellwether companies won’t come out until next week. Alcoa is seen posting a profit of 8 cents a share, down from 10 cents last year.
“We’re waiting for earnings for evidence that the market can be supported at these levels,” said Jim Dunigan, chief investment officer at PNC Wealth Management in Philadelphia. “We will see growth in earnings, but clearing the expectations bar could be difficult, which could give us reason to pause.”
Wall Street opened flat and dipped early in the session on concerns about the earnings season, though stocks rebounded in afternoon trading.
Consumer staples were the stronger performers of the day, rising 0.8 percent, led by a 4.8 percent jump in Monster Beverage shares to $52.06.
The Dow Jones industrial average was up 0.58 points, or 0.00 percent, at 14,565.83. The Standard & Poor’s 500 Index was up 4.21 points, or 0.27 percent, at 1,557.49. The Nasdaq Composite Index was up 7.35 points, or 0.23 percent, at 3,211.20.
Stocks have rallied strongly this year with major indexes hitting record highs, helped in part by the Federal Reserve’s stimulus program. The S&P 500 is up nearly 9 percent for the year so far, while the Dow has gained just under 11 percent.
Despite that, major indexes posted their worst weekly loss for 2013 last week, with the payroll report fueling concerns about economic growth.
“A lot of the momentum we had in the first quarter was based on improving economic news, and the jobs report really took the wind out of our sails,” said Dunigan, who helps oversee $116 billion in assets. “We’re still trying to sift through what that means for our prospects going forward.”
Loose monetary policy from central banks around the world is expected to keep equities attractive, and recently investors have been using market declines as buying opportunities.
The Bank of Japan started its bond purchases on Monday after it announced last week it will inject about $1.4 trillion into the economy in less than two years.
Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke will give a speech later on Monday after markets are closed. Investors have been watching for any insight into the Fed’s thinking on how long the central bank will keep its asset purchase program in place as it tries to boost the economic recovery.
General Electric Co said it will buy oilfield pump maker Lufkin Industries Inc for about $2.98 billion, driving Lufkin shares up nearly 38 percent to $87.97. GE, a Dow component, declined 0.2 percent to $22.88.
Among blue-chip stocks, Johnson & Johnson Inc was the Dow’s biggest percentage decliner after JPMorgan downgraded the healthcare company’s stock to “neutral” from “overweight,” saying it faced “a messy first quarter and a likely downward revision to 2013 guidance.” The stock fell 1.7 percent to $80.68.
Among technology stocks, HP shares shed 1 percent to $21.74. Google Inc slid 1.7 percent to $769.99.