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Stocks Ride Rate Wave to Higher Close

Stocks push higher on Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke's assurances that rates will remain low. Gregg Greenberg recaps the day in The Real Story.

NEW YORK (

TheStreet

) -- Stocks closed higher Wednesday after

Federal Reserve

Chairman

Ben Bernanke testified on Capitol Hill that interest rates will remain low.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average

gained 92 points, or 0.9%, to close at 10,374. The

S&P 500

added 11 points, or 1%, to 1105, while the

Nasdaq

improved by 23 points, or 1%, to finish at 2236.

>>Top Software Stocks With Bright Futures

In his semiannual report on economic and monetary policy before the House Financial Services Committee, Bernanke said government responses helped stabilize the economy, but warned any additional "sustained recovery" will depend on private-sector growth.

Although consumer spending has improved, Bernanke also said concerns about the housing and labor markets remain. With expectations for subdued inflation remaining, Bernanke repeated a now-familiar phrase, also echoed in the Fed's already released policy report, saying that the central bank's key

fed funds rate

will remain at "exceptionally low levels ... for an extended period."

The testimony lifted shares across the financial sector.

JPMorgan Chase

(JPM) - Get Report

and

Bank of America

(BAC) - Get Report

were the Dow's best performers with shares up 2.4% and 2.5%, respectively.

Shares of

Citigroup

(C) - Get Report

and Bank of America were the most heavily traded on the

New York Stock Exchange

, which had listed volume of 4.2 billion. The Dow, meanwhile, was seeing volume of 181 million, compared with an average volume of 200 million.

In the afternoon session, members of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee grilled

Toyota

(TM) - Get Report

President Akio Toyoda on the automaker's safety problems. The stock finished 4% higher.

The U.S. Treasury saw respectable demand for its $42 billion auction of five-year notes. The auction had a bid-to-cover ratio of 2.75 and a high yield of 2.395%. Indirects, or foreign buyers, took less than half of the bids, at 41%.

The benchmark 10-year note was strengthened 1/32, diluting the yield to 3.685% while the five-year note was largely unchanged with a yield of 2.351%. The long-dated 30-year bond rose 7/32, weakening the yield to 4.620%.

Wednesday saw stocks trading in positive territory for most of the day's session, despite the Commerce Department's report showing

new-home sales slumped 11.2% in January, reaching a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 309,000 units. Economists had expected sales to rise to 355,000, up from a revised 342,000 the month prior.

Stuart Hoffman, chief economist at PNC Financial, wrote that the data were showing the "effects of severe winter weather," adding that a "very cold January for the eastern U.S. likely contributed to anemic new home sales for the month."

Michael Pento, senior market strategist at Delta Global Advisors, admitted surprise that investors so easily shrugged off the housing data. He said market participants were relieved that Bernanke continued signaling for low interest rates and remained insistent that the Fed's recent discount rate hike did not represent a shift in the monetary policy outlook.

"That's the crux of why the market's rallying," Pento says. "There was a lot of feeling or fretting that the discount rate presaged a sooner, faster reversal of the monetary stance."

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While Bernanke's statement echoed previous language, and though many realize the Fed will have to tighten monetary policy in the future, Pento added that the market "got reassurance the Fed exit strategy is not going to start any time soon."

Elsewhere, in an expected move, the

Securities and Exchange Commission

voted 3-2 to adopt a so-called "alternative" uptick rule. The move is meant to restrict short sales when a stock drops at least 10% during a session, allowing short selling if the price is above the current national best bid, according to a statement from Chairman Mary Schapiro.

Citigroup is reportedly in talks to sell a hedge fund business with $4 billion in assets, according to a

Wall Street Journal

report. The stock gained 3%, to close at $3.45.

Google

(GOOG) - Get Report

is the subject of a European antitrust probe investigating how it ranks search results.

Yahoo!

(YHOO)

, announcing a content partnership with

Twitter

, said people will be able to access their personal Twitter feeds across Yahoo!'s products and properties. Shares surged 1.4%.

Regulators in China have stalled the sale of

General Motors'

Hummer brand, according to a report from

Reuters.

Ministry of Commerce officials turned down a bid by Sichuan Tengzhong Heavy Industrial Machinery, though both GM and Tengzhong were examining alternatives.

Pfizer

(PFE) - Get Report

shares improved 0.8% after news reports circulated that the Food and Drug Administration approved a new vaccine to treat pneumonia. The vaccine, known as Prevnar 13, was brought into the Pfizer stable of drugs from its acquisition of Wyeth.

In earnings news, homebuilder

Toll Brothers

(TOL) - Get Report

narrowed its loss in the first quarter and exceeded analyst estimates. Shares shed 12 cents, or 0.6%, at $18.78.

In the consumer space, jeweler

Zale

(ZLC)

, women's apparel dealer

Chico's

(CHS) - Get Report

and luxury retailer

Saks

(SKS)

also beat bottom-line forecasts.

The greenback was trading lower against a basket of currencies with the dollar index down by nearly 0.1%.

In a morning release, the Energy Information Administration estimated crude oil stockpiles rose by 3 million barrels last week, which outpaced a forecast from Platts calling for a 2 million-barrel build. Gasoline inventories, which were projected to fall by 200,000 barrels, shed 900,000 barrels. At the same time, distillate stocks decreased by 600,000 barrels, though analysts had anticipated a steeper 1.56 million barrel drop.

Crude oil for April delivery gained $1.14, or 1.4%, to settle at $80 a barrel, while the April

gold

contract lost $6, or 0.9%, to settle at $1,097.20 an ounce.

-- Written by Sung Moss and Melinda Peer in New York

.