Everyone seems convinced that the recent rally in stocks has absolutely no chance of holding up. Yet a few years from now, what's happened since March -- and what's yet to come over the next few months -- will be just a bump in the road compared to the overall fortunes of the stock market.

Guts and glory
During times like these, it's tough not to think like a short-term trader. After the market was cut in half in just 15 months, stocks have now jumped by over a third from their March lows. In just two short months, the S&P 500 has erased all of its losses for 2009.

Moreover, those traders who picked the exact bottom have seen some of the worst-hit stocks during the bear market shoot back up with amazing gains. Take a look at some of the top-gaining stocks since March 9:

Stock

Gain Since March 9

1-Year Return

5-Year Avg. Annual Return

Las Vegas Sands (NYSE:LVS)

569%

(87%)

(28.1%)*

Office Depot (NYSE:ODP)

374.6%

(79.1%)

(30.6%)

USG (NYSE:USG)

295%

(55.4%)

3.9%

International Paper (NYSE:IP)

221.6%

(40.8%)

(15.6%)

Bare Escentuals (NASDAQ:BARE)

218.5%

(50.9%)

N/A

Citigroup (NYSE:C)

204.8%

(87.2%)

(39.6%)

Dow Chemical (NYSE:DOW)

163.1%

(57.3%)

(12.9%)

Source: Yahoo! Finance.
*4-year average return.

Profits like those we've seen from these stocks in the past two months often take years for long-term investors to earn. So it's no wonder that the rally has taken many unprepared investors by surprise -- and left them wondering whether they've made the wrong decision with their long-term investing strategy.

Irrational in two directions
Of course, as the table above shows, there's nothing particularly extraordinary about how these companies have performed when you look at them on a longer-term basis. They've all done worse than the S&P over the past year, and all but USG have underperformed the index since 2004.

The real question, though, is which is more irrational: the plunge in these companies' stock prices, or the ensuing recovery. Clearly, during times of panic like we saw in early March, investors believed that many of these companies were in danger of falling apart. Now, shareholders seem convinced that their failure isn't imminent -- yet they certainly haven't bid shares back up anywhere close to where they traded last May.

In that light, a small rally like this doesn't seem all that ridiculous -- especially in light of the bigger picture.

A little perspective
In late 2007, investors still believed the future would stay bright forever. When that scenario proved grossly incorrect, stock prices took a 57% haircut, most of which has happened just since last September. Now, after a seemingly huge rally, the S&P 500 is down "only" 42% from its record highs.

That 42% drop doesn't come as a shock to anyone. With unprecedented government intervention and uncertainty about whether the economic cycle is broken for good, lower share prices only make sense.

But the way we got there -- with an even bigger plunge and a subsequent bounce -- is what people are focusing on. And that's the wrong focus.

The right thing to do
Long-term investors know better. They realize that over the long haul, it makes absolutely no difference whether stocks take a straight-line path down or take investors on a roller-coaster ride. The important thing is figuring out which stocks have solid business foundations and taking advantage of attractive valuations when they come to buy.

You might be tempted to wait until this silly-looking rally ends and share prices on your favorite companies fall back toward their lows. That may even turn out to be the right call. But if you play that timing game, you're doing exactly the same thing as the speculators you've criticized -- and if your stocks don't cooperate, you may miss out entirely on a huge opportunity. Just as Warren Buffett missed out on Wal-Mart because of a fraction of a point, you could miss the next big growth stock.

As we know well by now, markets will plunge and soar from time to time. But you don't have to get caught up in the hype. Stick with the investing strategy you've developed for your long-term goals -- it'll serve you better in the end.

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Fool contributor Dan Caplinger bought a little in March, bought a little in April, and plans to buy a little in May. He doesn't own shares of the companies mentioned. Bare Escentuals is a Motley Fool Rule Breakers recommendation. Wal-Mart and USG are Motley Fool Inside Value recommendations. Try any of our Foolish newsletters today, free for 30 days. The Fool's disclosure policy pays attention to the right things.