Stocks end shortened session at new 2009 highs

AP News
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Posted: Dec 24, 2009 3:23 PM

Stocks ended a holiday-shortened session Thursday at new highs for the year following upbeat reports on unemployment and durable goods orders.

A weaker dollar also helped buoy the market, lifting energy and materials stocks. Christmas Eve trading was extremely light.

The encouraging signs of the labor market and consumer demand helped assuage investors who were disappointed the day before by an unexpected plunge in new home sales last month.

New claims for unemployment benefits fell 28,000 to 452,000 last week, the Labor Department reported, the latest sign of improvement in the job market. It was the best figure since September 2008, just before the credit crisis peaked, and better than the 470,000 new claims economists had predicted.

Separately, the Commerce Department said orders to factories for durable goods excluding the volatile transportation sector jumped 2 percent last month, double what analysts expected.

Stocks have managed to push higher in December on optimism about the economy, but at a more subdued pace than in recent months. As the year winds to a close, the Standard & Poor's 500 index up 66.5 percent since hitting 12-year lows in March.

This week's trading pattern reflected the market's recent cautious tone. On Monday, stocks shot higher as another wave of corporate dealmaking boosted investors' optimism. Two days later, shares barely budged after the disappointing report on housing.

"The news on balance is pretty good," said Uri Landesman, head of global growth, ING Investment Management. "The market continues to inch higher."

The Dow Jones industrial average rose 53.66, or 0.5 percent, to 10,520.10. The Standard & Poor's 500 index rose 5.89, or 0.5 percent, to 1,126.48, while the Nasdaq composite index rose 16.05, or 0.7 percent, to 2,285.69.

Rising shares outnumbered decliners by about 3 to 1 on the New York Stock Exchange, where consolidated volume came to 1.2 billion shares.

Trading has been slow throughout the week heading into the holiday, which can exaggerate swings in stock prices. The market closed at 1 p.m. Thursday and will remain closed Friday for Christmas.

Volume is likely to remain light next week, which will be shortened by the New Year's Day holiday on Friday. Outside of readings on home prices and consumer confidence, there will be few economic reports to drive trading.

The final days of the year are often good for stocks, though. Since 1950, the S&P 500 has advanced an average of 1.5 percent during the seven trading days that start with Christmas Eve and end with the first two days in January.

In industry news, health care stocks were little changed after landmark health care reform legislation cleared the Senate. Some analysts said the sector could have fared much worse in the bill.

"It's come off fairly toothless from what it could've been," Mitch Schlesinger, managing partner at FBB Capital Partners, said of the Senate's version of the health bill. He noted that many big health insurers are still trading near their highs for the year.

The ICE Futures U.S. dollar index, which measures the dollar against other currencies, fell 0.1 percent. Gold prices climbed back above $1,100 an ounce, while oil prices rose 96 cents to $77.63 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange.

Commodities prices tend to rise when the dollar weakens because they become more attractive to foreign investors. A weaker dollar has helped keep the stock market churning higher in recent months.

Bond prices fell, sending their yields higher. The yield on the benchmark 10-year Treasury note rose to 3.80 percent from 3.75 percent late Wednesday.

The Russell 2000 index of smaller companies rose 3.09, or 0.5 percent, to 634.07.

Overseas, Japan's Nikkei stock average rose 1.5 percent. Britain's FTSE 100 rose 0.6 percent and France's CAC-40 rose 0.1 percent. Germany's market was closed for Christmas Eve.

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The Dow Jones industrial average closed the week up 191.21, or 1.9 percent, at 10,520.10. The Standard & Poor's 500 index rose 24.01, or 2.2 percent, to 1,126.48. The Nasdaq composite index rose 74.00, or 3.4 percent, to 2,285.69.

The Russell 2000 index, which tracks the performance of small company stocks, rose 23.50, or 3.8 percent, for the week to 634.07.

The Dow Jones U.S. Total Stock Market Index _ which measures nearly all U.S.-based companies _ ended at 11,622.81, up 377.51, or 3.4 percent.