Updated from 4:07 p.m. ESTBullish corporate reports and strong economic news pushed the markets higher Thursday, as the Nasdaq reclaimed its key 2000 mark on the eve of the eagerly awaited March employment report. The Dow closed up 15.63 points, or 0.15%, to 10,373.33; the S&P 500 finished higher by 5.96 points, or 0.53%, to 1132.17; and the Nasdaq Composite rose 20.79 points, or 1.04%, to 2015.00, after giving up its one-day hold on the 2000 level on Wednesday. Over 1.5 billion shares traded on the New York Stock Exchange, where advancers outnumbered decliners by about 2 to 1; and close to 1.8 billion changed hands on the Nasdaq, where advancers dominated by about 3 to 2. "We got some good news this morning that's giving us some strength here," said Collin Monsarrat, a trader at Birinyi Associates. "In the recent correction we sold off pretty quickly, and then I think we saw a technical bounce, recovering from an oversold condition. I think in the near term we'll see more of a trading range for a while." Ericsson ( ERICY)set the tone, closing up $2.11, or 7.66%, to $29.87 after saying ongoing cost cuts will lift its first-quarter gross margin above the 41.6% it posted in the fourth quarter. The Swedish telecommunications giant left its revenue forecast unchanged, saying the top line will fall from the fourth quarter but come in above the year-ago level. The ISM Manufacturing Survey came in at 62.5, ahead of the consensus expectation of 59.5 and last month's reading of 61.4. The employment component of the index rose to 57.0, from 56.3 in February. The government also said construction spending in February fell 0.1%, slightly beneath flat expectations. Monsarrat stressed that Friday's employment report could wreak havoc if it has any surprises. "The number had better come in around expectations," he said. "Extreme one way or the other is not going to be good. If unemployment is much better than expected, then everyone's going to be worried about the Fed raising rates. If it's worse than expected, then everyone's going to be worried about the economy and the consumer." The release, due out at 8:30 a.m. EST, follows a two-month streak of disappointing employment reports that left the markets questioning the overall health of the economy despite a slew of other positive indicators. Since February's data was released on March 5, the Dow and the S&P have both lost 2%, and the Nasdaq is down 1.5%. Many market-watchers attribute the decline to a long-awaited correction after a year-long bull market, and economists and investors alike are anticipating that the March data will finally show positive developments on the labor front. Wall Street's consensus estimate is predicting that 120,000 new jobs were added to nonfarm payrolls in March, and the unemployment rate remained unchanged at 5.6%. Economists also expect that hourly earnings matched February's performance, rising 0.2%, while the average work week increased slightly to 33.9 hours. Possibly supporting some optimism Thursday was a Labor Department report showing that first-time claims for unemployment benefits fell by 3,000 to 342,000 in the latest week, roughly in line with forecasts. Another report showed that producer prices rose 0.1% in February, less than expected, while the core rate of growth was in line with forecasts at 0.1%. In currency markets, the euro rose to $1.237 from $1.231 Wednesday after the ECB left its benchmark rate at 2% in a widely expected decision. European rates remain at their lowest level in a half-century. The strong economic news also contributed to a selloff in Treasuries: The 10-year Treasury note was down 10/32 to yield 3.87%.
In other market news, a change in the Dow's 30 component stocks is on the way. Verizon Communications ( VZ), insurance giant American International Group ( AIG) and drugmaker Pfizer ( PFE), which is now the industry leader, will join the famous blue-chip index effective April 8. On the way out are two companies whose fortunes have faded in recent years. AT&T ( T) and Eastman Kodak ( EK) are both being dropped. International Paper ( IP) will also be gone from the group of industrial stocks. On the news, Verizon closed up 1%, AIG rose 2.5% and Pfizer climbed 1.4%. It's the first reshuffling of the Dow since Nov. 1, 1999. In corporate news, Merrill Lynch downgraded Wal-Mart ( WMT) shares, as well as other top retailers, citing concerns that sales growth would dwindle in the second half of the year. Wal-Mart shares closed down $1.25, or 2.1%, to $58.44. Ford ( F) and DaimlerChrysler's ( DCX) Chrysler unit continued to have trouble selling cars in March, while General Motors ( GM) posted its second strong month in a row. Ford finished down 15 cents, or 1.11%, at $13.42, while GM lost a penny to finish at $47.09. Shares of SuperGen ( SUPG) dropped $4.26, or 33.3%, to $8.54 over uncertainty about whether positive results from a study of its cancer drug, Dacogen, were statistically significant. Manugistics ( MANU) lost $1.21, or 17.7%, to $5.63 after fourth-quarter results released late Thursday fell short of consensus estimates. The company reported a loss of $56.6 million, or 73 cents a share, compared to a loss of $111.4 million, or $1.59 a share, in the same quarter last year. Its revenue fell to $57.8 million from $65.5 million. Mamma.com ( MAMA), the Web search engine company, closed up $1.52, or 11.1%, to $15.20. Over 37 million shares traded hands on the session. The stock, which tripled in price in March, had a similar day two weeks ago after Mark Cuban, who owns the Dallas Mavericks professional basketball team, reported to securities regulators that he owned a 6.3% stake in the company. Before Friday's opening bell, Pathmark Stores ( PTMK) is expected to report fourth-quarter earnings of 31 cents a share, up from 26 cents a share last year.