March 1, 2013 at 4:17 PM ET
Stocks finished in positive territory on the first trading day of March, with the Dow within 100 points of hitting an all-time closing high, as a better-than-expected ISM manufacturing report offset worries over China and Europe and as investors shrugged off the looming government spending cuts.
The Dow Jones Industrial Average logged its ninth-straight Friday gain, led by Wal-Mart and Disney. The blue-chip index is within 100 points of hitting its all-time peak of 14,164.53 hit on Oct. 9, 2007.
Since 1950, March and April have been positive months for the Dow, with average gains greater than a percent. April, in particular, has been the best month of the year, posting an average monthly increase of 2.7 percent in the last 20 years and 1.97 percent since 1950.
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Among key S&P sectors, health care closed higher, while industrials finished in the red.
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With automatic spending cuts set to take affect Friday, President Barack Obama said lawmakers must take action to extend an unrelated "continuing resolution" to fund most government operations beyond the current expiration date.
"Let's be clear: None of this is necessary," Obama told reporters after meeting with congressional leaders at the White House. "It's happening because of a choice that Republicans in Congress have made. We shouldn't be making a series of dumb, arbitrary cuts to things."
Earlier, Obama met with House Speaker John Boehner, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell and House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi.
On the economic front, the pace of growth in the U.S. manufacturing sector edged up to 54.2 from 53.1 in January, exceeding forecasts for a pullback to 52.5. A reading above 50 signals expansion in manufacturing.
Consumer sentiment was better-than-expected in February at 77.6, according to a survey from Reuters/University of Michigan. Economists polled by Reuters expected the University of Michigan Consumer Sentiment reading to be 76.3.
Meanwhile, construction spending declined by 2.1 percent in January to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of $883.28 billion, according to the Commerce Department, missing expectations for a gain of 0.4 percent, according to a Reuters poll. It was the first monthly decline since March 2012.
And personal income fell more than expected in January, dropping 3.6 percent, missing expectations for a decline of 2.2 percent, while personal spending edged up 0.2 percent.
"We started the year with a lot of uncertainty, but expect moderate improvement in the U.S. economy going forward," said Tanweer Akram, senior economist at ING U.S. Investment Management. "Fundamentals are improving and the downside risk has declined compared to last year, but there are still a number of headwinds."
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Among earnings, Best Buy rallied after the consumer electronics giant posted quarterly results that topped expectations. The company originally planned to report its earnings on Thursday but delayed its release after former Chairman and CEO Richard Schulze's deadline to submit a buyout proposal to the Best Buy's board to take it private.
Foster Wheeler plunged more than 15 percent after the engineering and construction company said its fourth-quarter income sank 84 percent and revenue dropped. In addition, the company said it expects to see significantly weak 2013 earnings.
General Motors gained after the automaker reported February auto sales that beat Wall Street expectations, while rival Ford posted sales that missed estimates. Toyota traded flat after the Japanese automaker also reported sales that fell slightly short of forecasts.
European shares ended lower after weak euro zone manufacturing data, which showed activity continued to fall in February. In addition, Italy released data which showed unemployment in the country reached a 21-year high of 11.7 percent in January. Italy is also mired in political uncertainty after last weekend's national elections.
In Asia, shares were pushed downwards after news that manufacturing activity in China declined in February.
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