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Quiet end to volatile week on Wall Street

Wall Street closed out a volatile week and month with a comparatively mild performance Friday, closing mostly higher on encouraging words from Federal Reserve Chairman.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Wall Street closed out a volatile week and month with a comparatively mild performance Friday, ending mostly higher on encouraging words from Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke. The major indexes ended the week with gains, but still posted big declines for November.

The Dow Jones industrial average rose more than 150 points in the session after Bernanke gave investors more reason to believe further interest rate cuts could be on the way. But the market gave back a big chunk of the gains, a fizzle that was perhaps to be expected after stocks’ huge gains Tuesday and Wednesday. Nervousness about tech stocks, the result of weak results from Dell Inc., pulled the tech-dominated Nasdaq composite index down.

In a speech late Thursday, Bernanke said persistently tight credit conditions, the housing slump and high energy prices will probably create some “headwinds for the consumer in the months ahead,” and the central bank will have to be “exceptionally alert and flexible.”

The comments echoed those of Fed Vice Chairman Donald Kohn earlier in the week, which helped Wall Street recover some of its recent steep losses. Investors read Bernanke’s words as a sign that the Fed is willing to lower interest rates again after cutting them at the past two meetings.

“Although the U.S. is in the eye of the credit storm, we’ve seen the Fed cut rates and we’ve heard from Bernanke that they’re prepared to do so again if necessary,” said Robert Jukes, global equity strategist at Collins Stewart in London.

The Fed meets again Dec. 11, and a rate cut could help reinvigorate the slowing economy, proponents of such a move say. Evidence of a more reticent consumer came Thursday in a Commerce Department report that showed consumer spending rising a modest 0.2 percent in October, the slowest pace in four months.

The risk of rising inflation had been keeping the central bank cautious about loosening its policy. But that risk is looking less threatening now, given that oil prices have dipped below $90 a barrel for the first time since October and that the Commerce Department said core personal consumption expenditures have risen 1.9 percent year-over-year. Core PCE is one of the Fed’s preferred inflation measures, and a reading between 1 and 2 percent is considered a comfortable rate.

Still, Friday’s performance showed that uncertainty remains and that it doesn’t take much — in this case a weak number from Dell — to dent a broader rally.

The Dow rose 59.99, or 0.45 percent, to 13,371.72.

Broader stock indicators were mixed. The Standard & Poor’s 500 index rose 11.42, or 0.78 percent, to 1,481.14, and the Nasdaq fell 7.17, or 0.27 percent, to 2,660.96.

Advancing issues outnumbered decliners by more than 2 to 1 on the New York Stock Exchange, where volume came to 1.93 billion shares compared with 1.33 billion traded Thursday.

For the week, the Dow gained 3.01 percent, the S&P 500 added 2.81 percent and the Nasdaq advanced 2.48 percent.

Government bonds fell as investors pulled their money out of the safe securities and put it back into stocks. The yield on the benchmark 10-year Treasury note, which moves opposite the price, rose to 3.97 percent from 3.93 percent late Thursday.

Crude oil prices fell $2.30 to settle at $88.71 per barrel — their lowest levels in more than a month — on the New York Mercantile Exchange.

The week’s gains came after a sharp drop Monday that pulled the blue chip index to a level more than 10 percent below its record close. In the sessions that followed, the Dow jumped about 630 points, or nearly 5 percent, amid improving prospects for a rate cut and announcements that embattled financial companies like Citigroup Inc., Freddie Mac and E-Trade Financial Corp. were raising cash. All these developments bolstered investors’ confidence that credit problems may be on the mend.

Despite the week’s increase, stocks ended November lower because of heavy declines amid worries about credit. The Dow fell 4 percent in November, while the S&P 500 lost 4.4 percent and the Nasdaq gave up 6.9 percent.

Gains in the technology sector were limited by a murky outlook from Dell, as well as by cautious comments on Research In Motion Ltd. from Piper Jaffray and a wary Goldman Sachs note on technology in general, according to Peter Boockvar, equity strategist at Miller Tabak.

The broader market is “being helped out by the hopes for a rates cut and the prospect of the government getting involved in fixing adjustable interest rates,” he said.

Dell, whose third-quarter earnings just missed expectations, fell $3.60, or 12.8 percent, to $24.54, while Research In Motion fell $8.26, or 6.8 percent, to $113.82.

Financial stocks showed big gains Friday after months of being battered because of their link to mortgage troubles. The moves followed reports that the White House and major banks may be nearing a pact that would temporarily freeze interest rates on some subprime home loans, reducing the likelihood of default or foreclosure.

Countrywide Financial Corp. jumped $1.52, or 16.3 percent, to $10.82; Washington Mutual Inc. rose $1.49, or 8.3 percent, to $19.50; Freddie Mac rose $5.56, or 18.8 percent, to $35.07; and Citigroup Inc. rose $1.01, or 3.1 percent, to $33.30.

The Russell 2000 index of smaller companies rose 1.71, or 0.22 percent, to 767.77.

The dollar gained against other major currencies, while gold prices fell.

Stocks gained overseas. Japan’s Nikkei stock average rose 1.08 percent, and Hong Kong’s Hang Seng index rose 0.57 percent. Britain’s FTSE 100 added 1.31 percent, Germany’s DAX index gained 1.36 percent, and France’s CAC-40 rose 1.29 percent.