Dow sees steady gains

US stocks posted moderate gains today, buoyed by Hewlett-Packard’s earnings, a surprising jump in home construction and more positive comments from the Federal Reserve.

US stocks posted moderate gains today, buoyed by Hewlett-Packard’s earnings, a surprising jump in home construction and more positive comments from the Federal Reserve.

The Dow Jones industrial average posted a new four-year high on a late surge in trading.

Hewlett-Packard’s ongoing turnaround encouraged buying in the technology sector and helped the Dow reach its highest level since June 5, 2001, furthering Wall Street’s confidence in large-cap stocks.

Investors’ economic worries were eased by the news on home construction, which jumped 14.5% last month, following a bullish economic outlook from new Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke.

“Clearly, the market has turned for the better here,” said Joseph Battipaglia, chief investment officer at Ryan Beck & Co. “You’re seeing today some of the ebb and flow that’s to be expected in a market like this, but with Bernanke saying the economy is still powering ahead, this is not a bad environment to be in.”

However, with the major indexes posting substantial gains for the week, today’s trading was lacklustre until the last half-hour of the session, when St Louis Fed President William Poole said the Fed was close to stopping interest rate hikes.

The Dow rose 61.71, or 0.56%, to 11,120.68.

Broader stock indicators were modestly higher. The Standard & Poor’s 500 index gained 9.38, or 0.73%, to 1,289.38, and the tech-focused Nasdaq composite index added 18.20, or 0.8%, to 2,294.63.

Bonds were little changed, with the yield on the 10-year Treasury note falling to 4.59% from 4.60% on Wednesday. The dollar rose against most major currencies, while gold prices fell.

A jump in oil prices muted the stock market’s gains. A barrel of light crude settled at US$58.46 (€49.12), up 81 cents, on the New York Mercantile Exchange.

The recent drop in oil below US$60 (€50.41) per barrel, combined with strong earnings and Bernanke’s testimony, spurred this week’s rally. However, some analysts question whether future uncertainties, such as slower economic growth or a reverse in oil prices, could keep stocks from building on their gains.

“Nobody wants to get ahead of things,” said Jeff Kleintop, chief investment strategist for PNC Financial Services Group in Philadelphia. “The stuff that could happen later in the year could be creeping into things now, which is keeping us flatter than I would’ve liked.”

Hewlett-Packard rose 2.35, or 7.4%, to 34.02 after beating Wall Street’s earnings estimates by 4 cents per share on strong notebook computer sales and success in cost cutting initiatives. Credit Suisse analysts subsequently raised the company’s stock rating to “outperform” from “market perform”.

H-P’s impact on the tech sector may have been limited as investors waited to see quarterly earnings from rival Dell, due after the session. Dell added 19 cents to 31.96.

Department store operator JC Penney gained 1.22 to 57.85 after the company reported a 65% surge in fourth-quarter profits and issued a bullish earnings forecast for 2006. The company’s earnings beat analysts’ expectations by 8 cents per share.

XM Satellite Radio Holdings tumbled 1.27, or 5%, to 23.98 after it posted a wider-than-expected loss for the fourth quarter, and one of its directors quit the board and warned of an impending crisis.

Advancing issues outnumbered decliners by nearly 7 to 3 on the New York Stock Exchange, where volume totalled 1.66bn shares, compared with 1.73bn traded at the same point on Wednesday.

The Russell 2000 index of smaller companies rose 6.82, or 0.94%, to 731.92.

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