Stocks extend gains

By Alexandra Twin, senior writer

NEW YORK( -- Stocks gained Wednesday as investors considered a better-than-expected housing report, a mixed forecast from the Federal Reserve and some upbeat company news.

The dollar firmed up, hitting dollar-traded oil, gold prices and stocks. Treasury prices plunged.

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The Dow Jones industrial average (INDU) rose 40 points, or 0.4%. The S&P 500 index (SPX) added 5 points, or 0.5%. The Nasdaq composite (COMP) edged up 12 points, or 0.6%.

Stocks clung to modest gains throughout the session Wednesday as investors weighed the day's news against the headwinds that have punished stocks year-to-date.

After the close, Hewlett-Packard (HPQ, Fortune 500) reported higher quarterly earnings and revenue that topped expectations. Shares gained 1% in extended-hours trading.

Stocks rallied Tuesday after Merck (MRK, Fortune 500) and Barclays (BCS) released better-than-expected results and commodity prices rose. The Dow gained 1.7%, or 170 points, for its biggest one-day point gain since Nov. 9.

But Tuesday's advance was an exception, and stocks have had a rough start to the year, with the Dow, Nasdaq and S&P 500 posting declines for four of the last five weeks.

Worries about China limiting bank lending and the threat of Greece's debt crisis expanding have dragged on stocks. European officials have sought to soothe worries about Greece and other euro zone countries lately, but broader concerns about the strength of any recovery have continued to worry investors.

"I think the market is struggling with higher expectations going into 2010," said Alan Lancz, president at Alan B. Lancz & Associates.

Lancz said that the China and euro debt issues took investors by surprise and that while quarterly profit reports have been good, the economic news has been mixed.

"All of this has brought to light that while the economic recovery is going to be good, its not going to be as strong as had been anticipated," Lancz said. "Stock valuations are going to need to catch up to the economy.

In 2009, the Dow gained 18.8%, the S&P 500 rose 23.4% and the Nasdaq gained 44%. But the gains were even bigger off the multi-year lows of last March, with the Dow rising 59%, the S&P 500 rising 65% and the Nasdaq rising 79%.

Thursday brings the weekly jobless claims report from the Labor Department, the index of leading economic indicators (LEI) from the Conference Board, the January Producer Price Index (PPI) and the Philadelphia Fed index.

In addition, Wal-Mart Stores (WMT, Fortune 500) reports results before the start of trading. The retailer is expected to have earned $1.12 per share versus $1.03 a year earlier.

Fed minutes: The central bank released the minutes from its last policy meeting in the afternoon, as well as its revised economic forecast. Chairman Ben Bernanke and the other officials said unemployment should decline only modestly over the next few years, keeping the unemployment rate above the level that is typical during a recovery.

The bankers also gave a slight boost to forecasts for economic growth this year, lifting the target to growth of between 2.8% and 3.5% in 2010 versus November forecasts for growth between 2.5% and 3.5%.

Economy: Housing starts rose 2.8% in January to a 591,000 annual unit rate, according to a National Association of Home Builders report released Wednesday morning. Economists surveyed by thought it would rise to a 580,000 unit annual rate from a 575,000 unit annual rate in the previous month.

Building permits, a measure of builder confidence, fell 4.9% to an annual unit rate of 621,000 in January, versus forecasts for a drop to a 620,000 unit annual rate. Permits stood at a 653,000 unit annual rate in the prior month.

Industrial production rose 0.9% in January after rising 0.7% in the previous month, the government reported Wednesday. Economists surveyed by thought it would rise 0.7%. Capacity utilization rose to 72.6%, as expected, from 71.9% in December.

Quarterly results: Deere & Co. (DE, Fortune 500) reported higher quarterly earnings that topped estimates on lower revenue that also topped estimates. The heavy equipment maker said that cost-cutting and the benefit of better currency rates helped offset the weak economic environment. Deere also boosted its 2010 sales forecast.

Around 393 companies, or 79% of the S&P 500, have reported results. Currently, results are on track to have risen 211% from a year earlier, according to Thomson Reuters. Revenues are set to rise 8%. Stripping out the recharged financial sector, earnings are set to rise 16% and revenues 3%.

Company news: In deal news, Walgreen (WAG, Fortune 500) said it will buy rival drugstore Duane Reade in a deal valued at $1.08 billion including debt.

Toyota (TM) said it plans to install a new brake override system in its cars, and that it will tighten controls on safety, in the aftermath of its recall of millions of autos due to faulty brakes.

However, President Akio Toyoda said he won't testify before Congress at the hearing later this month. Shares of Toyota fell nearly 3%.

World markets: In overseas trading, both European and Asian markets rallied.

The dollar and commodities: The dollar gained versus the euro and the yen, pressuring dollar-traded commodity prices.

U.S. light crude oil for March delivery rose 32 cents to settle at $77.33 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange.

COMEX gold for April delivery rose 30 cents per ounce to settle at $1,120.10.

Bonds: Treasury prices tumbled, raising the yield on the 10-year note to 3.74% from 3.66% late Tuesday. Treasury prices and yields move in opposite directions.

Market breadth was mixed. On the New York Stock Exchange, winners topped losers two to one on volume of 1.02 billion shares. On the Nasdaq, advancers beat decliners by three to two on volume of 2.06 billion shares.

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