While the stock market has climbed back a long way from its darkest days, we're still in the red compared to where the market stood at its peak back in late 2007. That means there are a lot of folks out there still looking to recoup some of the money they lost during the recession. However, according to some experts, it now looks like gaining back the rest of that ground, and moving on to new highs, may be an easier process than many realize.

The sunny side
The rash of positive year-end economic data is giving investors room to hope once again. As manufacturing soars, layoffs abate, and housing seems to be bottoming out, investment professionals are coming out of the woodwork with rosier forecasts for the future than we could have imagined even a mere six months ago. BlackRock manager Robert Doll recently told the media that he thinks the S&P 500 will end the year at "1,350 plus." Doll feels cautiously optimistic and believes the economy will enter an expansionary phase by the second quarter, with growth that is healthier and more sustainable than in 2010.

But the prediction that's really grabbing some attention is manager Laszlo Birinyi of Birinyi Associates. Birinyi is noted for his prescient call to buy U.S. stocks right before they bottomed in March 2009. So what does this guru predict for the market this time around? According to his research on prior bull markets, he sees the S&P 500 Index reaching 2,854 by Sep. 4, 2013. That's a roughly 124% gain from where the index closed out 2010. Birinyi predicts that the current bull market will last another 32 months, based on how long previous bull markets had run. Even if he's only in the ballpark, that's a pretty hefty gain in store for investors who stick it out for the long run.

Big money
So will the S&P 500 really post a 124% return over the next two and a half years? Well, obviously no one knows for sure, even those with armies of data and statisticians at their disposal. I won't go so far as to put a number on the S&P 500's return in the coming years, but I am totally on board with the thinking behind Doll's and Birinyi's predictions. While there are clear long-term structural problems our economy needs to deal with, recent economic data have provided us with strong evidence that a double-dip recession scenario is basically off the table and that growth should pick up nicely as the year progresses.

And while the rise in the domestic stock market should be a tide that lifts all boats, there's one segment of the market that I think looks especially attractive right now: large-cap blue chips. Small-cap firms have absolutely run roughshod over their larger counterparts for most of the past decade. While the small-cap-focused Russell 2000 Index has posted an annualized return of almost 7% over the past 10 years, the S&P 500 Index has managed to eke out less than 2%. And while small caps may continue to outperform in the near future as business conditions improve and access to credit for smaller firms unfreezes, I do think high-quality large-cap names will take over market leadership before too long. It's a trend that is overdue, given current relative valuations.

Quality's the thing
I'm not the only one who thinks that overlooked large caps will be the big winners in the coming quarters. GMO's Jeremy Grantham and perennial bear John Hussman are both in agreement that high-quality large-cap names are set to outperform over the next couple of years. Last November, Grantham predicted that blue-chip names would return 5.1% a year above inflation, compared to a 0.8% loss for small-cap stocks. And while Hussman's portfolio remains fully hedged, he has recently purchased shares of Bristol-Myers Squibb (NYSE: BMY) and biotech firm Biogen Idec (Nasdaq: BIIB) in the health-care field. He also sees value in consumer goods names Kimberly-Clark (NYSE: KMB) and Nike (NYSE: NKE). In Hussman's opinion, all of these high-quality names should have decent appreciation prospects, even in what he considers to be a relatively high-risk economic and market environment.

Of course, if you want to get some quick exposure to the large- and mega-cap market, there are a few handy exchange-traded funds that can get the job done for you. The SPDR S&P 500 ETF (NYSE: SPY) and iShares S&P 500 ETF (NYSE: IVV) are two low-cost options for boosting your allocation to the large-cap domestic stock market. The price of admission is only 0.09% for both funds, so you're not going to break the bank here. If you want exposure to high-quality dividend-paying names, a fund like Vanguard Dividend Appreciation ETF (NYSE: VIG) might be right for your portfolio.

So whether the S&P 500 actually achieves Birinyi's lofty 124% return prediction in the next few years, I'm pretty confident the U.S. stock market will produce some pretty decent returns in the near future and that large-cap names will be at the forefront of that charge. So make sure you've put some money to work in this up-and-coming sector of the market.

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Amanda Kish is the Fool's resident fund advisor for the Rule Your Retirement investment newsletter. At the time of publication, she did not own any of the funds or companies mentioned herein. Kimberly-Clark is a Motley Fool Income Investor recommendation. Nike is a Motley Fool Stock Advisor recommendation.Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days.

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