Best week in four years for Wall Street

Wall Street secured its best week in four years today, rising modestly after a surprise jump in home sales eased concern that frailty in the housing market will hurt economic growth.

Wall Street secured its best week in four years today, rising modestly after a surprise jump in home sales eased concern that frailty in the housing market will hurt economic growth.

Existing home sales rose by the biggest amount in nearly three years in February amid a sharp increase in sales in the Northeast, the National Association of Realtors said. The 3.9% increase was the largest since a similar jump in March 2004 – analysts had been expecting a decrease.

Still, the report did have some downbeat aspects – the median price of a home fell year-over-year for the seventh straight month and inventories rose.

The Federal Reserve this week said an “adjustment” in the housing sector was continuing, offering some relief for investors left unnerved by the woes among so-called subprime mortgage lenders.

Wall Street had grown concerned that an implosion among subprime lenders, which make loans to people with poor credit, could spill over into other parts of the economy and derail already slowing economic growth.

“People are realising the housing market is bottoming and is not going to cause a recession in 2007,” said Noman Ali, US equities portfolio manager at MFC Global Investment Management.

“The consumer is really the main driving force of the economy and the consumer remains strong.”

The Dow Jones industrial average rose 19.87, or 0.16%, to 12,481.01. The Dow rose for five straight sessions, picking up 370.60 for its biggest weekly point gain since March 2003; that translated to a 3.06% rise for the week.

Broader stock indicators also closed higher. The Standard & Poor’s 500 index advanced 1.57, or 0.11%, to 1,436.11, and the Nasdaq composite index rose 4.44, or 0.18%, to 2,456.18.

For the week the S&P 500 rose 3.54% and the Nasdaq gained 4.52%.

Bonds fell following release of the housing data. The yield on the benchmark 10-year Treasury note rose to 4.61% from 4.58% last night. The dollar was mixed against other major currencies, while gold prices fell.

Light, sweet crude settled up 54 cents at 62.23 dollars per barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange. Oil prices rose following word that Iranian naval vessels had detained 15 British sailors and Royal Marines in Iraqi waters. Concerns arose that an escalation of tension could hurt exports from the Persian Gulf.

The week’s gains seemed to take Wall Street by surprise. Investors had expected the Fed would leave short-term interest rates at 5.25% but changes in the wording of the central bank’s policy statement seemed to offer something for everyone.

Stocks rallied after the central bank didn’t refer to the possibility of “additional firming” of rates as it had in January. Instead, policy makers said “future policy adjustments” would depend on inflation and growth. Despite the more neutral language about the possibility of a rate cut, the Fed said it remains vigilant about the threat of inflation.

With Wednesday’s decision, the Fed has left short-term interest rates, the rate banks charge each other for overnight loans, unchanged for six straight meetings after a string of 17 straight increases that began in 2004.

Examining the week’s trading, Ed Hyland, global investment specialist for JPMorgan Private Bank, said it is a “good sign” that the market hasn’t given back its gains made.

“I think it’s just that the market is continuing to digest the rally that it had,” he said, though he noted Wednesday’s gains, which included a 159 point jump in the Dow industrials, were perhaps overwrought.

Ali contends that if concerns about the housing sector moderate somewhat, Wall Street will likely turn its attention in the coming weeks to forecasts about quarterly results. “It’s going to be confession season going into first-quarter earnings.”

In corporate news, Germany’s DaimlerChrysler AG jumped to a fresh 52-week high amid speculation that a Canadian car supplier, along with a private equity company, planned to make a bid for the company’s struggling US Chrysler division. DaimlerChrysler jumped 4.76 dollars, or 6.1%, to 82.36 dollars. The stock traded as high as 82.93 dollars, eclipsing an earlier 52-week high of 77.99 dollars.

General Motors, one of the 30 stocks that make up the Dow industrials, gave a sizeable boost to the blue chips amid enthusiasm over the possible Chrysler bid and after the world’s largest car maker announced stock option grants to executives that are tied to the company’s performance. GM rose 1.67 dollar, or 5.5%, to 31.99 dollars.

Verizon, also a Dow component, rose 11 cents to 38.12 dollars after a federal judge issued a permanent injunction against Internet phone company Vonage Holdings for use of Verizon’s patents. Vonage fell 26 cents, or 6.4%, to 3.79 dollars.

Amgen fell 2.45 dollars, or 4.1%, to 58.02 dollars after the company halted a trial of colon cancer drug Vectibix. In the trial, the product hastened the development of colon cancer when used in combination with Avastin.

Label maker Avery Dennison agreed to acquire Paxar, a maker of tags, labels and apparel identification products, for about 1.34 billion dollars. Avery Dennison rose 88 cents to 66.43 dollars, while Paxar surged 4.52 dollars, or 18.8%, to 28.55 dollars.

Advancing issues narrowly outnumbered decliners by about 3 to 2 on the New York Stock Exchange, where volume came to 1.39 billion shares, down from 1.62 billion yesterday.

The Russell 2000 index of smaller companies rose 1.46, or 0.18%, to 809.51.

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