Updated from 4:06 p.m. EST

Stocks finished mostly higher on Wednesday, as late buying helped the

Dow

and

S&P 500

inch past their previous 18-month highs set yesterday, following a batch of mixed earnings reports this morning,

The Dow rose 15.70 points, or 0.2%, to 10,145.26; the S&P 500 rose 1.35 points, or 0.1%, to 1076.48; and the

Nasdaq Composite

slipped 2.96 points, or 0.2%, to 1921.33, as it continued to underperform the other major indices.

Volume on the

New York Stock Exchange

was 1.41 billion shares, while 1.48 billion shares changed hands on the Nasdaq. Advancers outpaced decliners on the NYSE by about 3 to 2, while decliners led the way on the Nasdaq by 5 to 4.

"It was a mixed bag this morning. The brokerages had strong earnings, but

FedEx

(FDX) - Get Report

and the big electronics retailers disappointed," said Richard Nash, chief market strategist for Victory Capital Management.

"It is encouraging that people were buying on the pullback," said Peter Coolidge, a trader at Deltec Asset Management. "But there isn't any great enthusiasm for stocks considering how far and how fast we've come this year."

The dollar fell to $1.2402 per euro, close to a record low, and was slightly lower vs. the Japanese yen. The 10-year Treasury note was up 6/32, yielding 4.19%.

Crude oil futures rose 1.5% to $33.39 per barrel, close to a nine-month high, following a report that said U.S. inventories declined 1.8% in the week ended Dec. 12. That helped oil shares buck the overall downtrend.

ExxonMobil

(XOM) - Get Report

gained 41 cents, or 1.1%, to $38.88.

Overseas markets finished mostly down, with Germany's Xetra DAX down 0.5% at 3848 and London's FTSE 100 up 0.5% at 4354. In Asia, Hong Kong's Hang Seng closed down 0.6% at 12,193, and Japan's Nikkei lost 1.7% at 10,093.

A survey out Wednesday showed growing optimism among the nation's CEOs. The Business Roundtable's CEO economic outlook index rose to 89.6 in December from 67.7 in October, with 25% of those surveyed saying they plan to hire workers in 2004, compared to 12% in October.

Stock Buybacks

E*Trade

(ET) - Get Report

today announced a $100 million stock buyback. Over the past few weeks, a slew of companies have announced or maintained their share repurchase programs, including

Coca Cola

(KO) - Get Report

,

U.S. Bancorp

(USB) - Get Report

,

Pfizer

(PFE) - Get Report

and

Home Depot

(HD) - Get Report

, just to name a few.

"With the improvements in corporate earnings and cash flows, buybacks and dividend increases are likely to continue," said Nash. The market's tepid response to new deals has left corporations wary of acquisitions, leaving them with more cash on hand, he added.

"Anytime a firm buys back its own shares, aside from when it does so for options reasons, it is usually trying to send a message that its shares are undervalued," continued Nash.

But Art Hogan, chief market analyst at Jefferies, says he wouldn't throw money at stocks of companies that hastily announced repurchase programs. "Often times a company will announce a buyback to offset something negative, but they won't actually complete the buyback. They just want to leave it out there psychologically to show that there will be a market for the shares at the current value."

Hogan pointed to E*Trade, which today announced buyback plans, but at the same time said its daily revenue trades only grew 2% in November, a pace that lags the competition.

Schwab

( SCH) daily revenue trades grew by 3%, and

Ameritrade's

(AMTD) - Get Report

grew by 6%.

"At this time of the year it is not out of the ordinary; companies often need to repurchase their equity for stock options programs and holiday bonuses," Hogan added.

Movers

In earnings news,

Bear Stearns

( BSC) reported fourth-quarter earnings of $2.19 a share, blowing away analysts' projections for $1.81 a share, on a 36% jump in total revenue. Shares of the company rallied $2.08, or 2.8%, to $76.58.

Lehman Brothers

( LEH) beat expectations comfortably as well. The company said fourth-quarter earnings improved to $1.71 per share from $1.04 last year, ahead of analyst expectations for a smaller increase to $1.57. Lehman shares slipped $1.17, or 1.6%, to $73.39.

Best Buy's

(BBY) - Get Report

third-quarter profit improved to 37 cents a share from 27 cents, in line with analysts' expectations. The shares rose $1.98, or 4%, to $51.50. Jefferies feels that a lot of bad news has already been priced into the stock and upgraded the shares to buy from hold.

Circuit City

(CC) - Get Report

reported a wider-than-expected loss of 12 cents per share, vs. a loss of 10 cents a year ago. Analysts had expected the company's loss to narrow to 7 cents. The company's shares plunged 74 cents, or 6.7%, to $10.34.

FedEx's profit improved to 87 cents per share from 81 cents in the same quarter last year, but it missed expectations by 2 cents. However, the company increased guidance for fiscal 2004 to between $3.30 and $3.40 per share; the consensus had been for $3.30. FedEx stock declined $3.30, or 4.4%, to $71.01.

Orbitz

( ORBZ) shares dipped $1.02, or 3.9%, to $24.98 on their first day of trading. Shares of the online travel reservation company priced at $26, above their $22 to $24 range, and raised $317 million.

Shares of another IPO,

China Life Insurance

(LFC) - Get Report

, began trading. The insurance company priced at $18.68, near the top of its range, netting over $3 billion in proceeds. Shares advanced $4.86, or 25.8%, to $23.72.

In research, Deutsche Bank downgraded shares of

R.J. Reynolds

( RJR) to hold from buy on the basis of valuation. The company's shares fell 41 cents, or 1.1%, to $57.70.

Tomorrow,

Goldman Sachs

(GS) - Get Report

and

Morgan Stanley

( MWD) will report fiscal fourth-quarter earnings before the opening bell. The expectations are high following stellar quarters from both Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns.

On the economic calendar, initial jobless claims for the week ended Dec. 13 are expected to decline by 13,000 to 365,000, and make it 11 consecutive weeks under the key 400,000 level thought necessary for labor market improvement.

In addition, the Philadelphia Federal Reserve Survey is expected to fall slightly to 25.0 in December from 25.9 in November, and leading indicators are expected to rise 0.3% in November, after a 0.4% increase in October.