By Kate Gibson U.S. stocks on Monday stepped modestly higher ahead of the unofficial launch of the first-quarter earnings season, with aluminium giant Alcoa Inc. reporting after the market close. Finishing above 11,000 for the first time since Sept. 26, 2008, the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJI) gained 8.62 points to end at 11,005.97, with Alcoa (AA) rising 1.3% and Caterpillar Inc. (CAT) up 2.2%. The first of the Dow's 30 components to report first-quarter results, Alcoa is expected to swing to a profit under the steam of higher aluminium prices and increased demand. On Wednesday, J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. (JPM) is slated to release its results in what analysts said should provide a barometer of financial-sector fiscal conditions. Other big names set to report results include blue chips Intel Corp. (INTC), Bank of America Corp. (BAC) and General Electric Co. (GE) "By the end of the week, we should have a reasonable idea of whether investors' high expectations for terrific earnings reflected in recent stock-price gains over the last eight weeks have been warranted," said Fred Dickson, chief market strategist at Davidson Co. The S&P 500 Index (SPX) rose 2.11 points to 1,196.48, with financials rising the most and materials the laggard among the index's 10 industry groups. The Nasdaq Composite Index (RIXF) was up 3.82 points at 2,457.87. Activity on the corporate M&A front also bolstered sentiment, with Mirant Corp. (MIR) agreeing to acquire rival power firm Reliant Energy Inc. (RRI) for $1.61 billion and military contractor DynCorp International (DCP) getting taken out by private-equity firm Cerberus Capital Management. European leaders over the weekend agreed to offer loans to Greece, helping to ease worries that rising debt in Greece and other countries in Europe might curb the global economic recovery and weaken the euro. Crude futures finished at $84.34 a barrel, and gold futures ended higher at $1,162.20 an ounce. Advancers outran decliners roughly 4 to 3 on the New York Stock Exchange, where 976 million shares changed hands and composite trading volume topped 4.7 billion. On Friday, U.S. stock benchmarks closed out a sixth consecutive week of gains, taking the Dow industrials above 11,000 intraday for the first time since late September 2008.