Stock Market Holding to Gains

The stock market has spent the day in sharply positive territory as swift passage of a bill to bail out the U.S. financial system looks increasingly probable, and despite GE's earnings shortfall adn weak economic data.
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Updated from 1:24 p.m. EDT

Stocks in New York were holding to gains Thursday afternoon as the prospect of a quick bailout for financial firms trumped a gloomy earnings forecast from

General Electric

(GE) - Get Report

and discouraging

economic data

.

The

Dow Jones Industrial Average

was up 207 points at 11,032, and the

S&P 500

climbed 24 points to 1210. The

Nasdaq

added 34 points to 2190.

On Wednesday, the three major indices finished narrowly mixed after a day of erratic trading. Investors were focused on Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson's $700 billion bailout plan for the financial sector.

On Thursday afternoon, lawmakers appeared ready to

move forward with the bailout package

, raising hopes that the bill be finalized by Friday.

"This crisis could result in a deflationary period, and that obviously would mean a prolonged, serious -- not recession, but depression," said Peter Cardillo, chief market economist at Avalon Partners. However, the bailout plan is not without a price tag, he said. "It means the printing presses at Treasury will be running on full cylinders," said Cardillo, which means inflation remains a concern, "but it's the lesser of the two evils."

Cardillo said that if the Treasury buys back troubled assets, it's a step toward returning confidence to the financial system. The $700 billion price tag, he said, indicates that the Treasury "themselves don't know how much is out there, so they're going to the higher end of what they believe will do the trick." He said that it's possible the plan could end up costing $300 billion or $400 billion, but the ultimate price is uncertain.

For the system to function properly, the market needs to unwind derivatives and mortgage-backed assets, said Marc Pado, U.S. market strategist at Cantor Fitzgerald. "They're not going to take the risk

of lending unless they know they can sell their toxic assets and the government is going to buy them." In the meantime, he said, institutions are holding on to their capital tightly.

Pado said the government's management of the most troubled mortgage-backed assets remains a concern. "They really haven't addressed that other than Paulson has said that some of this is going to have to be spun off to management agencies," he said.

Back on Wall Street, harried bank

Washington Mutual

(WM) - Get Report

was approaching private equity companies, including

Carlyle Group

and

Blackstone

(BX) - Get Report

, about a potential takeover, according to a report in

The Wall Street Journal

Thursday.

Industrial conglomerate

General Electric

lowered its third-quarter profit forecast and suspended its stock-buyback program, citing weakness in the financial markets.

Cardillo said that ahead of earnings season, the market is expecting many corporations to lower their estimates, and he expects trading to remain defensive, without many drastic moves to the upside or to the downside.

Elsewhere, shareholders in

Delta

(DAL) - Get Report

and

Northwest

(NWA)

are scheduled to vote on a

merger

between the two airlines, according to a report by the

Associated Press

.

Occidental Petroleum

(OXY) - Get Report

announced it would buy the remainder of two oil and gas fields in the Midwest from partner

Plains Exploration & Production

(PXP)

for $1.25 billion. Occidental already owned a 50% interest in the fields.

As for corporate earnings, athletic apparel maker

Nike

(NKE) - Get Report

reported first-quarter

profit

that increased year over year and bested the Street's estimates.

Discover Financial

(DFS) - Get Report

reported earnings that declined 11% year over year but still beat analyst expectations.

In analyst actions, Stifel Nicolaus initiated coverage of the

airlines

, assigning buy ratings to United parent

UAL

(UAL) - Get Report

,

Delta

(DAL) - Get Report

,

Continental

(CAL) - Get Report

and American parent

AMR

(AMR)

.

Southwest

(LUV) - Get Report

garnered a hold rating from Stifel.

Looking at the day's economic data, the Census Bureau reported August durable-goods orders fell by 4.5%, a far wider decline than the 1.3% drop expected by economists and down from a 0.8% increase in July.

The Department of Labor reported that jobless claims for the week ended Sept. 20 came in at 493,000, ahead of analyst forecast of 450,000 and up from 455,000 in July.

Cardillo of Avalon Partners said that the economy looks to remain at a standstill for now but said that the spike in unemployment claims could be related to the damage wreaked by Hurricane Gustav.

A bit later, the Census Bureau announced that new-home sales for August came in at an annual rate of 460,000, below economists' forecast of 518,000 units.

The question now, said Pado of Cantor Fitzgerald, is whether the housing market can reach a level where prices stabilize and lenders regain confidence that they can issue mortgages. He said that the rate of decline in home prices is declining, but he doesn't foresee an end to declines in housing prices until the second quarter of 2009.

The price of crude oil was up $1.16 to $106.89 a barrel. Gold was down $13 to $882 an ounce.

Longer-term U.S. Treasury securities were mixed. The 10-year was down 6/32 to yield 3.83%, and the 30-year was gaining 14/32, yielding 4.39%. The dollar was gaining on its major foreign competitors.

Overseas, European exchanges such as the FTSE in London and the Dax in Frankfurt were gaining ground. In Asia, Japan's Nikkei and Hong Kong's Hang Seng finished with losses.