WASHINGTON — The stock market has had an impressive January. The staid companies that make up the Dow Jones industrial average have gained 4 percent in three weeks, and the broader market has done even better.
But the Nasdaq composite — a collection of technology stocks whose dot-com heyday was more than a decade ago — has left them both in the dust.
That's no surprise when you consider tech stocks took a licking last year. Tech companies tend to carry more risk — a problem for the Nasdaq during last year's market gyrations. As investors regain confidence in the economy, riskier plays are doing well.
But experts say the Nasdaq's gains reflect long-term currents that could lift tech stocks through 2012 and beyond. Many companies put off replacing worn-out technology during the recession. To compete and survive, they need to invest in tech.
There's also a growing global market for technology as more nations try to reduce labor costs by automating everything from factories to cash registers.
And the biggest tech companies face less competition these days when they try to acquire smaller companies. Many of their mid-sized rivals for those deals were weeded out after the dot-com bust and the financial crisis.
In the market for mergers and acquisitions, established players like IBM and Oracle can be picky about buying only those companies that will increase their earnings — and probably their stock prices.
In other words, it's not all about Microsoft-style titans and trendy social media companies like LinkedIn and Zynga. The Nasdaq contains more than 3,000 companies, many of them relative startups compared with the companies in the Standard & Poor's 500 index.
For the year — just 13 trading days old — the Nasdaq composite is up 7 percent, compared with 4.6 percent for the S&P 500 and 4.1 percent for the Dow.
"It looks like it's going to be their year, or at least their month," says Michael Vogelzang, chief investment officer at Boston Advisors LLC.
The Nasdaq sank 1.8 percent last year, while the Dow rose 5.5 percent and the S&P was flat. That left tech stocks relatively cheap, giving them more space to rise as the broader market rallied. Oracle is up 11.9 percent this year, Microsoft 14.5 percent.
Vogelzang and others say the tech rally has further to go.
"If you want to make your company more productive, you have to turn to the world of technology for that," says Kim Caughey Forrest, senior analyst with Fort Pitt Capital Group.
She expects the S&P 500's tech sector to outperform the broader market because of strong demand from U.S. companies, developing nations such as China and even cash-strapped European governments. As China's banking system exploded to serve a growing middle class, banks there spent big on IBM technology, she noted.
"Nobody questions whether they need the latest and greatest technology anymore. They know they need to keep up their technology spending," says Eric Gebaide, managing director of Innovation Advisors, a tech-focused investment bank and strategic advisory firm.
Gebaide and others mentioned many companies' efforts to move their computing and data storage off-site — trends known as "cloud computing" and "virtualization." Long-distance computing is cheaper, but it requires technology.
But why are tech stocks rallying now? The cloud computing transition has been under way for years, and spending by companies has driven much of the U.S. recovery since the economy emerged from recession in June 2009.
It's all about the investment cycle, says Jack Ablin, chief investment officer with Harris Private Bank. He says investors are finally willing to "flex their speculative muscles in a market that isn't falling apart in the way they feared last year."