updated 12/16/2004 8:40:25 AM ET 2004-12-16T13:40:25

Stocks extended their rally with modest gains Wednesday, as Wall Street overlooked climbing oil prices to focus on strong results from Lehman Brothers and Sprint’s $35 billion deal for Nextel Communications.

Major Market Indices

Bullish corporate news has helped the Standard & Poor’s 500 and the Nasdaq composite index stretch to their highest levels since the summer of 2001 this week, but the three-day rally appeared to stagger Wednesday as stocks drifted in and out of negative range. Analysts said the lack of strong selling pressure was a positive signal, though.

“The markets are a little bit flat, it’s nothing rip-roaring. Normally when you get to a significant trading level ... there’s a natural inclination to take profits,” said Brian Pears, head equity trader at Victory Capital Management in Cleveland. “The fact that we’re still higher speaks to the strength of the underlying bullish trend.”

The Dow Jones industrial average gained 15.00, or 0.14 percent, to 10,691.45, close to its high for the year.

The broader gauges also rose modestly, besting multiyear highs reached in the previous session. The S&P 500 added 2.34, or 0.19 percent, to 1,205.72. The Nasdaq composite index rose 2.71, or 0.13 percent, to 2,162.55.

Oil prices trekked upward following the government’s weekly inventory report, which showed a 100,000 barrel decline in crude stores. Supplies of distillate fuels, which include heating oil, were unchanged — a disappointment to traders who had expected a build of 1 million barrels. Light, sweet crude for January delivery surged $2.37 to $44.19 on the New York Mercantile Exchange.

In Washington, President Bush offered assurances that his administration was working with Congress to reduce the deficits, and pledged support for “a strong dollar policy.” The U.S. government has done little to support the greenback, however, which continued to weaken against the euro on Wednesday. Economists say this is by design; a weak dollar helps narrow the trade gap by making U.S. goods more competitive in foreign markets and curbing domestic demand for imports.

Buying was brisk in the bond market a day after the Federal Reserve issued a widely expected rise in short-term interest rates. At least some of the strength in stocks was attributed to declining yields on the 10-year note, which slipped to 4.07 percent.

“It looks like the 10-year is really dictating how people are moving money around,” said Mark Donahoe, managing director at US Bancorp Piper Jaffray in Minneapolis. “I’m a little surprised there wasn’t more of a sell-off (in stocks) today. ... But with the long bond closer to 4 percent, what’s your alternative? Stocks.”

Telecommunications giant Sprint Corp. shed $1.08, or 4.3 percent, to $24.02, on the widely expected announcement that it would acquire Nextel Communications Inc. in a $35 billion deal. Nextel declined $1.29, or 4.3 percent, to $28.70. Both stocks had traded higher earlier this week on speculation about the deal.

Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. was up $2.25, or 2.6 percent, at $87.90, after reporting a 22 percent rise in fourth quarter profits. Earnings of $1.96 per share beat Wall Street estimates by a wide margin. A surge in its merger and acquisition business and record revenue and net income helped the brokerage’s full-year earnings climb 39 percent.

Best Buy Company Inc. gained $2.82, or 5 percent, to $58.86, after the nation’s largest electronics retailer reported a 21 percent rise in third-quarter profits. Per-share earnings of 45 cents beat estimates by a penny.

Nortel Networks Corp. declined 17 cents, or 4.6 percent, to $3.52, after reporting a 6-cent loss for the quarter and predicting lower full-year sales.

Advancers outnumbered declining issues by more than 3 to 2 on the New York Stock Exchange.

The Russell 2000 index, which tracks smaller company stocks, was up 5.07, or 0.79 percent, at 648.61 — an all-time high.

Overseas, Japan’s Nikkei stock average added 0.37 percent. In Europe, France’s CAC-40 shed 0.30 percent, Britain’s FTSE 100 gained 0.11 percent and Germany’s DAX index was down 0.42 percent.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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