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Stocks end higher as Fed sees recession easing

THE Fed confirmed what Wall Street has already concluded: The U.S. recession is starting to ease.

Federal Reserve policymakers said at the end of a two-day meeting that while the economy is still receding, the pace of decline "appears to be somewhat slower" than the last time they met in mid-March.

That was confirmation enough for the stock market. Major indexes, which had already been up sharply ahead of the announcement, posted gains of more than 2 percent. The Dow Jones industrial average jumped 169 points to its highest close since Feb. 9.

"It's all part of a picture of improving confidence," said Richard E. Cripps, chief market strategist for Stifel Nicolaus.

Stocks began the day higher as investors responded to bright spots within a weaker-than-expected report on the nation's economic output for the first three months of the year.

Gross domestic product contracted at an annual rate of 6.1 percent, much steeper than the 5 percent forecast by economists polled by Thomson Reuters. But the glimmers of good news in the report drove the Standard & Poor's 500 rose to its highest trading level since late January.

Investors were encourage by a rebound in consumer spending, which accounts for more than two-thirds of U.S. economic activity, and a decline in business inventories. On President Barack Obama's 100th day in office, the GDP report at least provided signs that the nation is seeing its economic slide start to moderate.

The Dow jumped 168.78, or 2.1 percent, to 8,185.73.

The Standard & Poor's 500 index gained 18.48, or 2.2 percent, to 873.64, and the Nasdaq composite index advanced 38.13, or 2.3 percent, to 1,711.94.

Michael Sheldon, chief market strategist at Westport, Connecticut-based RDM Financial, said the drop in business stockpiles "should set the stage for a pickup in production, employment and profits."

The Dow is now 25 percent above its early March lows, though stocks have been unsteady over the past several days on fears of a potential swine flu pandemic and persistent concerns about the country's biggest banks.

Investors are nervous that some banks, notably Citigroup Inc. and Bank of America Corp., might have to get more capital from the government or other investors. Going in to yesterday's session, the Dow had lost 59 points this week.

Yesterday's GDP report follows recent data that suggests consumers have taken on a more upbeat outlook on the economy, which can translate into more spending and bigger corporate profits. On Tuesday, a report showing a sharp jump in consumer confidence in April helped pull stocks from an early decline and left the market with just modest losses.

Better-than-expected earnings have been boosting the market as well. Media conglomerate Time Warner Inc. said first-quarter profit fell 14 percent on deteriorating ad sales, but the results were better than expected. Defense contractor General Dynamics Corp.'s first-quarter earnings rose 3 percent on sales of warships and other military equipment.

Investors are still keenly focused on the financial sector, though.

Bank of America held a contentious annual meeting yesterday. Shareholders ousted Ken Lewis as chairman after shareholders angry about the company's acquisition of Merrill Lynch & Co. voted to separate that job from the one of chief executive. The Charlotte, North Carolina, bank is one of the biggest recipients of government support.

Meanwhile, Citigroup, which has also received large amounts of federal aid, is trying to figure out how to retain workers. Citigroup CEO Vikram Pandit has talked with Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner about the possibility of paying special bonuses to keep demoralized workers from getting scooped up by competitors, a person familiar with the matter said. The person, who spoke on condition of anonymity, was not authorized to disclose details about the private talks.

According to a report in The Wall Street Journal late Tuesday, some key employees are threatening to leave the company because of pay restrictions the government placed on the bank.

Bank of America rose 53 cents, or 6.5 percent, to $8.68, while Citigroup rose 23 cents, or 8 percent, to US$3.12.

In other trading, the Russell 2000 index of smaller companies rose 18.63, or 3.9 percent, to 491.47.

About five stocks rose for every one that fell on the New York Stock Exchange, where volume came to 1.5 billion shares.

Bond prices fell after the Fed said it saw signs that the economy was finding its footing. That decreased demand for the safety of government debt and pushed the yield on the 10-year Treasury note up to 3.11 percent from 3.01 percent on Tuesday.


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