Making money has never been so easy. Lately, it's been hard not to make money in the financial markets. Just consider some of the most recent news:

  • The Dow has been flirting with the 10,500 level in recent days. It's regained its September 2008 levels, representing a rise of more than 60% from its March lows.
  • The bond market has continued to attract huge amounts of new money, as low interest rates and particularly strong performance on corporate bonds combine to encourage investors to take money out of cash accounts in search of better returns.
  • Gold vaulted over the $1,200-per-ounce level, and it hasn't paused at all in its advance.

Perhaps more importantly, among individual stocks, you have to search long and hard to find any that haven't given shareholders good returns lately. For instance, take a look at the S&P 500 index. Out of its 500 component stocks, only 12 have fallen in value since March. In contrast, 49 have tripled or more, with stocks such as Expedia (NASDAQ:EXPE), American Express (NYSE:AXP), and Dow Chemical (NYSE:DOW) rebounding strongly from their 2008 losses.

Will the good times end?
However, there's reason to think that the easy money has already been made. Perhaps the most obvious argument is the basic mathematical one: Having come so far so quickly, stocks simply can't give new investors the same returns that March's bottom-fishers reaped. A 60% rise from current levels would put both the Dow and the S&P well beyond their record levels from 2007 -- something that even the most bullish investors haven't started talking about just yet.

Yet focusing too much on the March lows may lead you to incredibly misleading conclusions. Any comparison with the low point of the bear market presupposes that the market was fully rational in dropping as far as it did. It's much more likely that panic exacerbated the stock market's decline, creating an artificially low bottom that skews any future comparisons.

Stocks like Citigroup (NYSE:C) and Las Vegas Sands (NYSE:LVS) both seemed priced for certain failure. But their amazing returns since March tend to obscure that both stocks remain more than 80% below their levels from two years ago.

Be more careful
In any event, from these levels, you can't count on seeing 97% of all stocks go up in the near future. Whether you think a correction is imminent, or that the bull market will continue, you'd be well advised to narrow your investing focus onto the stocks that have the best prospects going forward.

On that score, there are several reasonable directions you can go. Health-care stocks haven't completely missed the rally, but shareholders there haven't earned the same robust returns as investors in technology and materials stocks. In an environment where good value is becoming scarcer, hunting in health care might yield some promising results.

Similarly, for those seeking income along with growth potential, telecommunications and utilities stocks have also lagged behind the overall market's advance. AT&T and Verizon both yield close to 6%, while utilities such as Southern Company (NYSE:SO) and FPL Group (NYSE:FPL) also have maintained attractive dividend yields. If you're inclined to stay defensive, stocks like these might help you preserve your gains and protect your portfolio from a market reversal.

Get back to work
With the financial markets moving almost effortlessly higher lately, you've had a well-earned break from the carnage of 2008. Now, however, it's time to get back to work. With a mix of effort and caution, you'll find stocks that will help you enjoy strong returns, even without the tailwind of a powerful broad-based rally.

If you want the best of both worlds, Todd Wenning has some good ideas for you. Read his thoughts on five stocks for both growth and income.

Fool contributor Dan Caplinger rarely takes a break when the markets are concerned. He doesn't own shares of the companies mentioned in this article. American Express is a Motley Fool Inside Value recommendation. Southern Company is a Motley Fool Income Investor pick. The Fool owns shares of FPL Group. Try any of our Foolish newsletters today, free for 30 days. The Fool's disclosure policy is constantly working for you.