Stocks hit new highs

By Alexandra Twin, senior writer

NEW YORK ( -- Stocks ended a choppy session higher Monday, with the Dow, S&P 500 and Nasdaq managing fresh 2009 highs on some optimism about a recovery in retail sales and gains in select sectors.

The Dow Jones industrial average (INDU) rose 27 points, or 0.3%, ending at the highest point since Oct. 1, 2008.

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The S&P 500 index (SPX) gained 1 point, or 0.1%, and ended at the highest level since Oct. 1, 2008. The Nasdaq composite (COMP) rose 5 points, or 0.2%, ending at the highest point since Sept. 3, 2008.

Stocks had risen in the morning as investors welcomed a report showing some improvement in holiday retail sales, lost steam in the afternoon and then recharged by the close.

Stocks have now risen for six straight sessions, including the 3-1/2 days of last week's holiday shortened trading week. All financial markets closed early on Christmas Eve and were closed for Christmas.

The market is back to levels not seen since the fall of 2008, around the time of the collapse of Lehman Brothers.

Year-to-date, as of Monday's close, the Dow is up just over 20%, the S&P 500 is up 25% and the Nasdaq composite is up 45%. But all three major indexes are up even more substantially since hitting multi-year lows on March 9 amid the height of the financial crisis.

"We've seen a really strong recovery in the market the last nine months, based more on optimism than the fundamentals," said Robert McGee, portfolio manager at CS McKee.

He said that looking forward, the fundamentals -- a strong economy and earnings growth, among other factors -- should start to pick up. But even so, gains are likely to be limited after 2009's blowout. "I think it's going to be pretty flat in the first part of next year."

The last week of the year is typically lightly-traded, with many Wall Street pros and individual investors taking part or all of the week off. This year in particular, investors are unlikely to mess with their portfolios in the last days, unless it is to lock in a little in the way of profits.

All financial markets are active Thursday ahead of New Year's Eve, but are closed Friday for New Year's Day.

Retail: In what could be a positive sign for the consumer spending outlook, sales at U.S. retailers look to have risen in the all-important holiday shopping period.

Early estimates from the National Retail Federation (NRF) suggest sales in November and December fell 1%, an improvement from a 3.4% drop for the same period a year ago.

Sales at U.S. retailers rose 3.6% between November 1 and Christmas Eve, according to a report released by SpendingPulse, a unit of MasterCard, Reuters reported.

However, the retail sector showed little reaction Monday, with (AMZN, Fortune 500), Saks (SKS) and Macy's (M, Fortune 500) among the few gainers.

Airlines: Stocks in the industry were under pressure after a passenger on a Northwest flight heading from Amsterdam to Detroit Friday allegedly attempted to ignite an explosive.

The incident prompted an increase in the security measures airports and air carriers are taking, particularly on international flights into the United States.

Continental Airlines (CAL, Fortune 500), American Airlines parent AMR (AMR, Fortune 500) and Northwest parent Delta Air Lines (DAL, Fortune 500) were among the air carriers sliding.

On the move: Among others movers, Fannie Mae (FNM, Fortune 500) and Freddie Mac (FRE, Fortune 500) both rallied after the Treasury Department removed its $400 billion cap on the amount of money it will spend to keep the companies afloat. Treasury said it will now increase support depending on how much each company loses per quarter.

Fannie and Freddie are government-run mortgage lenders that own or guarantee about half the mortgages in the country.

But the two stocks were an exception in an otherwise weak bank sector.

World markets: Asian markets ended mixed. In Europe, Germany's DAX rose 0.8% and France's CAC 40 added 0.9%. British markets were closed for the Boxing Day celebration.

Commodities and the dollar: COMEX gold for February delivery rose $3.10 to settle at $1,107.90 an ounce. Gold closed at an all-time high of $1,218.30 an ounce earlier this month.

U.S. light crude oil for February delivery rose 72 cents to settle at $78.77 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange.

The U.S. dollar gained versus the euro and against the yen.

Bonds: Treasury prices fell, raising the yield on the 10-year note to 3.84% from 3.80% late Thursday. Prices had been even lower ahead of the latest auction of two-year note, which saw lighter demand than in recent months. Treasury prices and yields move in opposite directions.

Market breadth was mixed. On the New York Stock Exchange, losers beat winners by a narrow margin on volume of 710 million shares. On the Nasdaq, decliners topped advancers seven to six on volume of 1.25 billion shares. To top of page

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