Stocks: Alcoa gets things started

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Investors head into Tuesday digesting results from Alcoa that marked the start of first-quarter earnings season.

The aluminum producer reported earnings late Monday that beat analyst expectations but sales missed forecasts. Shares were slightly lower in premarket trading.

Alcoa (AA) is often considered a proxy for corporate results since it's typically the first Dow component to report.

Consider this: Over the past 10 years, when Alcoa beat earnings estimates, the S&P 500 rose an average 4.4% during the following three months, according to FactSet, which forecast overall earnings growth to contract 0.6%.

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U.S. stock futures were slightly higher ahead of the opening bell. Dow Jones industrial average, Nasdaq and S&P futures were all higher by a fraction of a percentage point.

Mega-banks JPMorgan (JPM) and Wells Fargo (WFC) are set to release quarterly results later this week.

After this year's strong run, most analysts expect investors to periodically tap on the brakes. All three major indexes have rallied 8% to 12% since January, and the Dow and S&P 500 have both set new record highs this month.

U.S. stocks cut early losses to finish higher Monday, rebounding from one of their worst weeks of the year.

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In corporate news, J.C. Penney (JCP) shares sank sharply in premarket trading, a day after the retailer announced that it was replacing CEO Ron Johnson with his predecessor, Mike Ullman.

European markets were higher in morning trading, helped by news of falling inflation in China, which also boosted the Shanghai Composite and the Hang Seng.

London's FTSE 100, the CAC 40 in Paris and the DAX in Frankfurt were all up by less than 1%.

Japan's Nikkei was flat on the day.

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