Stocks Hit 5-Year High on M&A Deals

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Major U.S. stock averages rose Tuesday, with the benchmark S&P 500 hitting a five-year high, as investor sentiment improved on yet another set of deals headlines, this time about a possible merger of OfficeMax ( OMX) and Office Depot ( ODP).

Investors remained concerned, however, as the U.S. sequestration deadline loomed. There are now less than two weeks left before the next fiscal cliff of automatic spending cuts kicks in March 1.

President Barack Obama on Tuesday urged Congress to find a way to avert the sequester, emphasizing the negative effect it could have on the economy and job creation.

"If Congress allows this meat-cleaver approach to take place, it will jeopardize our military readiness, it will eviscerate job creating investments, and education, and energy, and medical research ... it doesn't make those distinctions," he said.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average closed up 54 points, or 0.4%, to 14,036. The blue-chip index began the session up nearly 7% so far in 2013.

Breadth was positive, with winners outnumber losers 22 to eight. Top gainers included Pfizer ( PFE), General Electric ( GE), Cisco ( CSCO) and Merck ( MRK).

UnitedHealth ( UNH), Alcoa ( AA) and Wal-Mart ( WMT) were among the laggards.

UnitedHealth shares shed 1.1% and Humana ( HUM) plunged 6.4% as the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services proposed worse-than-expected 2014 Medicare Advantage rates.

The S&P 500 added 11 points, or 0.7%, to 1,531. The Nasdaq tacked on 22 points, or 0.7%, to 3,214.

Most sectors in the broader market, with the exception of basic materials, climbed higher, led by conglomerates, consumer non-cyclicals, energy and utilities.

Volumes totaled 3.72 billion shares on the New York Stock Exchange and 1.84 billion shares on the Nasdaq. Advancers were outpacing declines by a ratio of 2.2-to-1 on the Big Board and 2.1-to-1 on the Nasdaq.

Ed Yardeni, chief investment strategist at Yardeni Research, said despite the U.S. fiscal worries, the rise in payroll tax receipts in January, and jitters ahead of the Italian elections, there has been an "impressive" rally in stock prices so far this year amid ongoing deals headlines.

"Why hasn't the market sold off in anticipation of these potentially unsettling events? The recent wave of mergers and acquisitions is a reminder that corporations and private-equity investors have lots of cash available for such deals," said Yardeni.

He noted that, in the past, the bull market since March 2009 has mostly been driven by corporations using their abundant cash flows to buy back shares and pay out more dividends.

"Now they may be about to add M&A to their bullish activities," said Yardeni.

Gold for April delivery fell $5.30 to settle at $1,604.20 an ounce at the Comex division of the New York Mercantile Exchange, while April crude oil futures closed up 69 cents at $97.10 a barrel.

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