|Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke|
NEW YORK ( TheStreet) - Stocks finished modestly higher Wednesday, after the Dow Jones Industrial Average rose past the 12,000 mark for the first time since June 2008 during intra-day action on the back of better-than-expected home sales. The Dow finished 8 points, or 0.07% higher, at 11,985. During the session, the benchmark index flitted above and below the 12,000 mark several times, swinging from a low of 11,961 to a high of 12,020. The blue-chip index, which is up 3.5% so far in 2011, has now risen in three of the past four sessions, and is on track to record a ninth straight weekly gain. The S&P 500 inched closer to its own psychological milestone of 1,300, finishing up 5 points, or 0.4%, at 1297 and the Nasdaq Composite tacked on 20 points, or 0.7%, to close at 2739. The Federal Reserve Open Market Committee voted unanimously Wednesday afternoon to leave rates unchanged and continue its $600 billion bond buying program. The central bank said that the economy continues to recover but at a pace insufficient to make a dent on unemployment. It also acknowledged rising commodity prices but said underlying inflation has been on a downtrend. John Canally of LPL Financial said he was surprised the vote was unanimous. Charles Plosser of Philadelphia and Richard Fisher of Dallas, two of the new voting members on the board, were expected to be potential naysayers, as they had previously expressed concerns about "QE2." "No dissent is being taken by the market as a doveish signal. It also reinforces our view that the market is wrong about when the Fed will start to raise rates," said Canally, noting the rise in bond yields following the release of the policy statement. "We think it will happen only 18 months from now."
The dollar index was down by 0.1%. The benchmark 10-year Treasury sold off further by 25/32, lifting the yield to 3.426%. . Breadth among the Dow components turned negative in the final hour of trading, with only 14 stocks finishing higher while 16 declined. DuPont ( DD), Verizon ( VZ) and Alcoa ( AA) were among the Dow's top performers. Shares of Boeing ( BA) came under pressure, capping gains on the Dow. The company met profit estimates with adjusted fourth-quarter earnings of $1.11 a share but issued 2011 earnings guidance of $3.80 to $4 a share, short of the $4.55 a share that analysts had forecast. The stock was down 3% at $70.02. Procter & Gamble ( PG) and Walt Disney ( DIS) were other laggards. Overall, 67% of stocks on the New York Stock Exchange advanced while 30% lost ground.
Stocks were strong early Wednesday following better-than-expected home sales numbers. The Department of Commerce said new-home sales rose 17.5% to 329,000 in December from 280,000 in November, exceeding the 300,000 sales that economists had expected, according to Briefing.com. The SPDR S&P Homebuilders ETF ( XHB) was trading 2.2% higher at $18.36. Ian Shepherdson of High Frequency Economics, however, remains unimpressed by the new home sales numbers. "The percentage rise in sales looks impressive but 10% of next-to -nothing is still next-to-nothing," he wrote in his daily note. "New home sales are bouncing around the bottom and we see no clear upward trend in the data yet." He expects home sales to fall back as mortgage rates have risen in recent months. "Ultimately, we think a sustained acceleration in payrolls will be the key driver of stronger demand for new property, so we think the second half of this year will be a good deal better than the first. For now, activity remains hugely depressed," he said. In other earnings news, ConocoPhillips ( COP) met Wall Street expectations with adjusted fourth-quarter earnings of $1.32 a share, sending shares up 2.9% to $69.50. Shares of oil servicers including Halliburton ( HAL) and Schlumberger ( SLB) were up 5% and 3% respectively after their recent earnings beats. Shares of Xerox ( XRX) were down 8.5% to $10.43 after the copier maker's fourth-quarter earnings fell 5% to $171 million, or 12 cents a share. The company said it expects to earn 20 to 22 cents a share in the first quarter, compared with the current average analysts' estimate of 22 cents. Allegheny Technologies ( ATI) said net income for the fourth quarter dropped 60% year-over-year to $15.1 million, or 15 cents a share, well below the consensus view of 30 cents. The company, however, raised its outlook for 2011 and the shares rose 7.9% to $63.03. Shares of Juniper Networks ( JNPR) were up 6.1% to $36.96 after it
reported better-than-expected results after the bell Tuesday. During his State of the Union address late Tuesday, President Obama proposed increased investments in infrastructure and education, which would be covered by cuts elsewhere; a five-year freeze on domestic spending that would cut the deficit by more than $400 billion over 10 years; and an overhaul of corporate tax policies.
Elsewhere in equities, Lowe's ( LOW) stock was up 0.9% at $25.81 after the home-improvement retailer said it plans to eliminate 1,700 mid-level management jobs and add as many as 10,000 part-time sales positions. Toyota ( TM) is
recalling roughly 245,000 Lexus vehicles sold in the U.S. to investigate problems with a fuel pressure sensor. The move is separate from a larger recall globally to fix problems with a fuel delivery pipe and a high pressure fuel pump check valve. The stock was down by 1.9% at $82.25. Shares of Sara Lee ( SLE) were down more than 5% at $18.56 on reports that it had rejected a bid valuing it at between $18.70 and $20 per share from a private equity group led by Apollo Global Management. After the bell, Netflix ( NFLX) said it earned 87 cents a share on revenue of $596 million in its latest quarter, compared with Wall Street's estimate for a profit of 71 cents a share on revenue of $598 million. The company also saw its subscriber base top 20 million for the first time ever during the fourth quarter. Shares were rising 1.3% in extended trading. Television ratings company Nielsen ( NLDN) made a strong debut on the New York Stock Exchange Wednesday, closing up 8.6% at $25. Online media company Demand Media ( DMD) closed 33% higher in its public debut. The Energy Information Administration said crude oil inventors gained 4.8 million barrels in the week ended Jan. 21, compared with the addition of 1.7 million barrels that analysts had been expecting, according to a Platts survey. Late Tuesday, the American Petroleum Institute said crude stockpiles gained 2.12 million barrels. The March crude oil contract was settled $1.14 higher at $87.33 a barrel. Elsewhere in commodity markets, the February gold contract settled flat at $1,333 an ounce. Hong Kong's Hang Seng added 0.2% while Japan's Nikkei shed 0.6%. London's FTSE rose 0.8% while the DAX in Frankfurt finished higher by 0.9%. --Written by Melinda Peer and Shanthi Bharatwaj in New York.