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Stocks jump, led by homebuilders, retailers

INVESTORS rushed back into stocks as profits at a handful of companies indicated the economy might be gaining strength.

Homebuilders and retailers led a broad rally yesterday. The Dow Jones industrial average surged 173 points after four days of losses. The price of government debt jumped after an auction drew strong demand.

The day began with better-than-expected earnings reports. Lennar Corp.'s orders for new homes jumped 63 percent during the second quarter and its revenue beat expectations.

And retailers jumped following a report from Bed Bath & Beyond Inc. The home furnishings store said its fiscal first-quarter earnings climbed 14 percent as sales rose following the liquidation of rival Linens N Things.

Stocks extended their gains after Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke fended off accusations before a House committee that he pressed Bank of America Corp. to acquire Merrill Lynch in a deal that cost taxpayers $20 billion. Analysts said his handling of the questions made it less likely he would resign before his term expires early next year.

The third successful Treasury auction of the week helped boost confidence that Washington will be able to raise enough money to fund its economic recovery programs. Investors also applauded the Fed's announcement that it would let expire some of the emergency lending programs it set up last fall as the financial crisis intensified.

The upbeat news helped traders look past unexpected increases in claims for unemployment benefits. Traders had been expecting a drop. Investors have been dissecting economic and corporate data for signs of whether the economy is starting to recover or whether a stock market rally that began in March was premature.

Joe Saluzzi, co-head of equity trading at Themis Trading LLC, said the rally is likely tied in part to portfolio managers buying up stocks to pump up their returns ahead of the end of the quarter on Tuesday.

"I think the window dressing is a big deal," he said. "There's just a force underneath the market that wants to keep it higher."

The Dow rose 172.54, or 2.1 percent, to 8,472.40, after falling 40 points in the early going. It was the biggest point and percentage gain for the blue chips since June 1, though the Dow is still down 67 points for the week. The broader Standard & Poor's 500 index rose 19.32, or 2.1 percent, to 920.26. The gain pushed the index back into the black for the year.

The Nasdaq composite index rose 37.20, or 2.1 percent, to 1,829.54.

The Dow remains up 29.4 percent from a 12-year low on March 9, but down nearly 330 points, or 3.7 percent, from a five-month high on June 12.

Some analysts say investors will need to see evidence of growth to keep the rally going.

"People are hesitant to take a position one way or the other," said Doug Roberts, chief investment strategist at Channel Capital Research.

Trading is expected to remain volatile throughout the summer months, which are typically marked by light volume that can skew movements in the market. Friday could bring heavier-than-normal volume because of the annual reconstitution of the Russell 3000 index at the end of the day's trading. Investors who track indexes will have to buy and sell hundreds of stocks to match the new makeup of the indexes.

Investors were relieved yesterday to see the announcement that the Fed will allow a program for supporting money market mutual funds to lapse by the end of October. The central bank's decision, along with reductions in the amount it will lend to banks under two others is a sign the financial system is stabilizing. The Fed is extending five other programs.

On Wednesday, the Fed said it expects the economy will slowly resume growth and that inflation should remain in check.

Government bond prices jumped yesterday after an auction for $27 billion in seven-year notes drew strong demand.

Most auctions have been attracting solid demand this year, but investors remain cautious. If demand wanes, the government will have to boost yields to attract buyers.

The yield on the benchmark 10-year Treasury note jumped, pushing its yield down to 3.54 percent from 3.69 percent late Wednesday.

Ron Sweet, vice president of equity investments at USAA Investment Management Co., said the Treasury auction and the resulting drop in yields was a relief because it could reduce borrowing costs.

"Hopefully mortgage rates will be coming down," he said.

Among homebuilders, Lennar soared US$1.37, or 17.5 percent, to US$9.19, while Toll Brothers Inc. rose 85 cents, or 5.2 percent, to US$17.09.

Bed Bath and Beyond gained US$2.69, or 9.5 percent, to US$31.08.

Other retailers rose. Home Depot Inc. advanced 89 cents, or 3.9 percent, to US$23.57, and J.C. Penney Co. rose US$1.60, or 6 percent, to US$28.20.

More than four stocks rose for every one that fell on the New York Stock Exchange, where volume came to 1.2 billion shares compared with 1.1 billion shares Wednesday.

Crude oil rose US$1.56 to settle at US$70.23 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange.

The dollar was mixed against other major currencies. Gold prices rose.

In other trading, the Russell 2000 index of smaller companies rose 14.23, or 2.9 percent, to 509.18.

Overseas, Britain's FTSE 100 fell 0.6 percent, Germany's DAX index fell 0.7 percent, and France's CAC-40 lost 0.7 percent. Japan's Nikkei stock average rose 2.2 percent.


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