Stocks Close Higher Despite Greek Debt Woes

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Stocks finished higher Wednesday as the market digested news that the European Central Bank remains divided over how it will contribute to a Greek debt restructuring, and as Prime Minister Lucas Papademos began negotiations with Greek political leaders.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average climbed 5.75 points, or just 0.04%, to 12,884. The S&P 500 rose 2.9 points, or 0.2%, to 1,350, and the Nasdaq finished 11.8 points higher, or 0.4%, at 2,916.

"With a lack of economic data today, the markets are focused overseas with the financial problems in Greece," says Stephen Carl, head equity trader at Williams Capital Group. "Without a concrete agreement the markets will not show much strength."

"A weak finish would be an indication that maybe a slight change in market character is setting in," noted James "Rev Shark" DePorre, founder and CEO of Shark Asset Management.

According to Reuters, the ECB members have not unanimously agreed on how it will contribute to the Greek sovereign debt restructuring process. The ECB's role is crucial for Greece to secure an urgently needed €130 billion ($171 billion) bailout from its European partners and the International Monetary Fund in order to avoid a default. The restructuring aims at reducing Greece's debts by around 100 billion euros($130 billion), down to 120% of gross domestic product from 160% by 2020.

One of the ECB's concerns is that such a move would take pressure off Greece to agree to key austerity measures being negotiated as part of the debt rescue talks. Private creditors have largely already agreed to the general terms of what part they would play in the restructuring process, including taking an up to a 70% write-down on Greek sovereign debt holdings.

The ECB, the largest single holder of Greek sovereign debt, bought its Greek holdings at a discount, according to Reuters. The difference between the face value and the market price it paid is 11 billion euros, which would roughly match what is needed to plug a current shortfall in Greece's debt deal, according to the report. The chatter now is the ECB may end up bearing some of the pain in the restructuring process by sending Athens the profits it raked in from the bonds it bought below face value.

On Wednesday, Papademos began meeting with coalition leaders to bring closure to the country's austerity package. A 50-page draft document of the measures is now in the hands of the three parties backing the prime minister's transition government. The harsh proposals, which had triggered a nationwide strike, include a 20% reduction to minimum wages, cuts from monthly pensions of 360 euros, and the elimination of 15,000 civil service jobs.

London's FTSE settled lower by 0.24%, and Germany's DAX finished down 0.08%. In Asia, Japan's Nikkei Average settled up 1.1%, while Hong Kong's Hang Seng index finished higher by 1.54%.

In corporate news, Ralph Lauren ( RL) shares surged 9.2% to $171.49 after the apparel company report that third-quarter net income increased to $169 million or $1.78 a share from $168 million or $1.72 a share the previous year, beating expectations. Analysts polled by Thomson Reuters were expecting that company to earn $1.67 a share in the quarter. The company also beat revenue expectations in the quarter, soaring to $1.8 billion from $1.5 billion a year ago, thanks to double-digit wholesale revenue growth in the U.S. and Europe and retail sales growth worldwide.

Sprint ( S) reported a wider-than-expected quarterly loss Wednesday as subsidy costs rose amid high Apple ( AAPL) iPhone demand. The telecommunications company reported losses ballooned to 43 cents a share from 31 cents a year earlier, as revenue grew to $8.72 billion. Analysts expected a loss of 37 cents a share on revenue of $8.69 billion in the fourth quarter.

Sprint, which has seen five-straight years of losses, sold 1.8 million iPhones for the October to December period. However, the wireless carrier and its rivals AT&T ( T) and Verizon ( VZ) sell each iPhone at a loss as they tie costumers into multi-year contracts. Meanwhile, iPhone sales helped the carrier boost subscribers by 3% to 55 million.

Sprint shares erased 1.6% to $2.41. Apple shares were rising 1.7% to $476.68 while both AT&T and Verizon were about flat.

Time Warner ( TWX) reported better-than-expected quarterly results Wednesday as the final installment of its Harry Potter movie franchise boosted sales. The media giant reported earnings of 94 cents a share, beating forecasts of 87 cents by analysts polled by Thomson Reuters. Revenue grew by 5% to $8.2 billion. Analysts expected sales of $8.07 billion. The company also boosted its quarterly dividend by 11% to 26 cents a share. Time Warner shares ended the day 0.03% higher at $38.11.

Dow component Walt Disney ( DIS) posted below-consensus revenue in its fiscal first quarter Tuesday afternoon. The media and entertainment giant earned 80 cents a share on revenue of $10.78 billion for the three months ended Dec. 31. The average estimate of analysts polled by Thomson Reuters forecast earnings of 71 cents a share on revenue of $11.18 billion. Shares added 0.7% to $41.27.

McDonald's ( MCD) reported better-than-expected same-store sales globally and in each regional segment in January. The world's largest restaurant chain said Wednesday global comparable sales grew 6.7% last month, while U.S. sales jumped 7.8%. Analysts had expected global sales to rise 5.9% for the month, with a 6.8% gain in the U.S. The fast-food chain also said European sales rose 4% last month as sales in Asia, the Middle East and Africa surged 7.3%. McDonald's shares slid 0.9% to $100.05.

Nokia ( NOK), the world's biggest handset maker, said Wednesday it would slash 4,000 jobs in Finland, Mexico and Hungary as it struggles in a tough smartphone market. Nokia said it would move cellphone assembly to Asia from Europe where the majority of its component suppliers are based, a move designed to speed its products to the market. Nokia shares advanced 1.6% to $5.21.

3M ( MMM) rose 0.1% to $87.97 after the diversified technology company announced that Inge Thulin will be succeeding George Buckley as CEO. Thulin, who has been employed with 3M since 1979, has been the company's chief operating officer since May after previously serving as head of international operations. He has been credited for helping the company's international sales grow to nearly $20 billion, today representing two-thirds of 3M's sales, under his leadership. The announcement came a day after the company hiked its quarterly dividend by 7% to 59 cents a share.

March oil futures gained 30 cents to $98.71 a barrel, while April gold futures settled $17.10 lower at $1,729.30.

The benchmark 10-year Treasury fell 2/32, diluting the yield to 1.982%, while the U.S. dollar index rose 0.1% to $78.62.

No major U.S. economic announcements were expected on Wednesday.

-- Written by Andrea Tse, Chao Deng and Kaitlyn Kiernan in New York.

>To contact the writer of this article, click here: Andrea Tse.

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