Updated from 8:12 p.m. ET to include after-hours action. NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- One after another, the big, round numbers continue to fall. First, it was the Dow Jones Industrial Average busting through 13,000. The blue-chip index began the week at 12,922, and finished Thursday at 13,252.76. Bank of America ( BAC) continues to lead the way, rising a stunning 59% year-to-date, including a nearly 16% surge this week to reclaim $9. Then it was the Nasdaq Composite's turn. Being at levels unseen in more than a decade apparently wasn't good enough as the index, up an amazing 17.3% so far in 2012, now appears to have the tailwind of a potential M&A boom at its back. The Nasdaq blew past 3000 on Tuesday and hasn't looked back, closing Thursday at 3056.37. And finally, today saw the S&P 500 cross the finish line of 1400. Its close at 1402.60 was the highest since early June 2008 before the financial crisis took hold. For added perspective, consider that Bank of America didn't close on its purchase of Countrywide Financial until three weeks later. The index, widely considered the broadest measure of the health of the U.S. stock market, is now up 11.5% for the year, and looking fairly bulletproof. The all-time closing high of 1565 is less than 12% away though, so investors may want to prep for some profit-taking. UBS, which has a year-end target of 1475 for the S&P 500, said Wednesday it thinks the liquidity-driven bounce in stocks is in the "late innings" and the firm is now looking for earnings to pick up the slack. It thinks corporations have likely wrung all they can out of margins and now expects topline growth to take over. In the fourth quarter, UBS said 6.5% of the earnings growth seen was from revenue, while just 2.2% came from margins. "In many ways, the current recovery in corporate profits is quite typical," the firm said. "At the beginning of an earnings recovery, bottom-line growth is most often driven by margin expansion. As the economy improves, margins rebound, operating leverage wanes, and revenue becomes the primary catalyst driving earnings. As a result, EPS growth rates tend to moderate as the cycle naturally matures." Of course, the biggest driver of corporate earnings of late has been Apple ( AAPL), which breached its own big, round number on Thursday, making a brief foray above $600. The sprint from $500 to $600 took roughly a month from a close at $497.67 on Feb. 15, so it's not exactly a shocker that the shares couldn't hold the line on Thursday.
Despite the less than 1% drop in the stock to close at $585.56, the momentum behind Apple right now is palpable. Pre-orders for the new iPad have piled up ahead of Friday's launch, and the sell side continues to gush about Tim Cook's juggernaut. On Wednesday, it was Morgan Stanley lifting its price target on the stock to $720 from $515 (while also saying the shares could run above $900 by the end of 2013). Piper Jaffray did its part early Thursday, going to a price target of $718 from $670 while maintaining its overweight rating and boosting its calendar 2013 unit sales expectations for both the iPhone and the iPad. "We are raising our iPhone, and iPad numbers for CY13 to more accurately reflect Apple's strong position in these markets," the firm said. "Additionally, we are introducing estimates for CY14 and CY15 to outline a roadmap for Apple's continued growth. Our base model assumes Apple will sell 385m iPhones and 176m iPads in CY15, leading the company to $80 in EPS on $320b in revenue in CY15. We are not yet factoring in an Apple Television (late CY12) which could add ~4% to each year's revenue estimates. We remain buyers of AAPL." For 2013, Piper now expects iPhone sales of 189 million units, up from a prior view of 162 million units; and iPad sales of 86.5 million units, up from a prior view of 75.5 million units. The firm said its view is based on expectations that Apple will launch a redesigned LTE-capable iPhone 5 in the calendar third quarter of 2012; and that it will "release a sub-$300 iPad with a smaller display in CY13." Even as the stock continues to break to new all-time highs, the forward price-to-earnings multiple is still a reasonable 12.2X vs. 13.1X for the S&P 500 as of Friday's close. Of the 54 analysts covering Apple, 47 are bullish at either strong buy (24) or buy (23), and this rash of higher price targets seems likely to continue with the stock within shouting distance of the current 12-month median target of $605.
The stock's turnaround on Thursday was attributed to Deutsche Bank reportedly removing Apple from its short-term buy list. The firm's admission that it's "simply taking profits" isn't exactly a denunciation of Apple though, and it seems unlikely that this will be sufficient to knock the stock off its perch. The new iPad will be officially available online and in retail stores in the U.S. and nine other countries on Friday, so expect the usual news reports showing lines of Apple faithful waiting to snap up the tablet. Check out TheStreet's quote page for Apple for year-to-date share performance, analyst ratings, earnings estimates and much more. Meantime, General Electric ( GE) was able to conquer a small, round number, closing above $20 on Thursday for the first time since April 2011. It took a seven-session winning streak to do it (just like the Dow), and the finish at $20.16 put the shares up 10.5% in 2012. The latest catalyst is a feeling that the Federal Reserve's stress tests are a positive for the industrial conglomerate, setting the stage for its GE Capital financing unit to possibly resume paying a dividend to the parent company. Credit Suisse has an outperform rating on GE with a $22 price target on the stock, and it thinks this scenario could play out later this year, potentially pushing up GE's already healthy dividend yield of 3.5%. "What could GE do?," the firm said on Wednesday. "We estimate that GE Capital will earn $7.5 billion in 2012 and $8.6 billion in 2013; historically GE Cap paid well over 50% of earnings to the parent. This implies an annual distribution run-rate of $5 billion+ potentially, most of which could be returned to shareholders; a $5 billion hike would push the yield to 6%, although given the payout ratio is already 44%, much of this may be returned through a buyback." There's also a chance of a one-time payout, Credit Suisse said, or perhaps the parent company goes shopping. "The cash pile that GE Capital has (end-'12 liquidity of $50-60 billion) may also mean a one-off special dividend is possible," the firm said. "Finally, larger M&A may be on the table, in fields such as process automation (we have written about Invensys before)."
GE shares currently trade at a forward price-to-earnings multiple of 11.5X, cheaper than the aforementioned 13.1X multiple of the S&P 500, and Wall Street is extremely bullish with 14 of the 17 analysts covering the stock at either strong buy (4) or buy (10) and the median 12-month price target sitting at $21.50, implying potential upside of 6.6% from Thursday's close. Check out TheStreet's quote page for General Electric for year-to-date share performance, analyst ratings, earnings estimates and much more. As for Friday's scheduled news, the earnings calendar is awful light on Friday with names like ChipMOS Technologies ( IMOS), Dataram ( DRAM), Lakes Entertainment ( LACO), Orient Paper ( ONP), and ReneSola ( SOL) on the docket. There is a fair amount of economic data though with the consumer price index for February due at 8:30 a.m. ET, consensus is for a 0.4% increase; industrial production for February at 9:15 a.m. ET, economists are expecting a 0.5% rise; capacity utilization for February, which is projected at 78.8%; and the University of Michigan consumer sentiment gauge for March, consensus is for a slight increase to 75.8. And finally, Cogo Group ( COGO) was the big winner in after-hours action, nearly doubling on news that Jerry Kang, its chairman and CEO, is offering to buy 30% of the company's assets for a significant premium. The stock was last quoted at $3.62, up 92%, on volume of roughly 270,000, according to Nasdaq.com. Kang expects to pay between $60 million and $82 million in the transaction, based on an independent appraisal, a consideration that implies a value of $6-$8 per share for Cogo, which had a market cap of less than $65 million based on Thursday's regular session close at $1.94. -- Written by Michael Baron in New York. >To contact the writer of this article, click here: Michael Baron.