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Stocks close up on ‘a glimmer of hope’

Wall Street rallied once again Thursday as investors bet that companies hurt by the housing crisis will benefit from a plan to help homeowners and from another interest rate cut.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Wall Street rallied once again Thursday as investors bet that companies hurt by the housing crisis will benefit from a government plan to help financially stretched homeowners and from another interest rate cut.

The Dow Jones industrial average surged more than 170 points after a nearly 200-point rise Wednesday.

Wall Street has been concerned about the housing slump’s impact on consumers, and started out a bit shaky Thursday when Target Corp. released lackluster sales and a downbeat December outlook. However, stocks eventually pushed higher; a weak consumer, though bad for corporate profits, at least supports the argument for the Fed Reserve to lower interest rates when it meets Tuesday. A rate cut could help reinvigorate the slowing economy and loosen up the tight credit markets.

Stocks got an additional boost when President Bush announced a plan allowing some homeowners facing foreclosure to not only freeze their interest rates for up to five years, but also refinance their mortgages. The plan was created by the Treasury Department, mortgage lenders and banks, and could help about 1.2 million homeowners, Bush said.

“That’s providing a glimmer of hope,” said Jim Herrick, director of equity trading at Baird & Co. “But there’s some skepticism. Is this really going to be the panacea to the subprime market? That’s the $64,000 question.”

Even Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson said the plan was not a “silver bullet.”

Foreclosures hit a record high in the third quarter, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association. The fallout from the crisis has weighed on the financial services sector this year, with banks and brokerages writing down some $80 billion worth of securities tied to mortgages.

The Dow rose 174.93, or 1.30 percent, to 13,619.89. The blue-chip index is still 3.8 percent below its Oct. 9 closing record of 14,164.53, but has surged nearly 6.9 percent over the past week and a-half after incurring huge losses in early-to-mid-November.

Broader stock indicators also extended their gains. The Standard & Poor’s 500 index rose 22.33, or 1.50 percent, to 1,507.34, and the Nasdaq composite index rose 42.67, or 1.60 percent, to 2,709.30.

Bond prices fell as investors returned to stocks. The yield on the benchmark 10-year Treasury note, which moves opposite to its price, rose to 4.02 percent from 3.95 percent late Tuesday.

Countrywide Financial Corp., the nation’s largest mortgage lender, rose $1.68, or 16 percent, to $12.10, on the government mortgage rate plan.

“Investors are having a collective sigh of relief that this is a positive signal the housing crisis and credit credit crunch will not cause the end of this bull market,” said Hugh Johnson, chairman and chief investment officer of Johnson Illington Advisors.

But the stock market has been volatile since the summer, jumping on signals that the worst of the credit crisis is over and then plunging on hints that it could persist well into next year. With the Fed’s meeting Tuesday and investment bank fourth-quarter earnings around the corner, there remains an undercurrent of nervousness on Wall Street.

“We get this newfound optimism, a shot in the arm, of confidence, and then the rug gets pulled out from under us — that’s been our experience for the last three months, four months,” Johnson said. “There’s no question that there still is a very high level of uncertainty, caution, worry, that confidence in the stock market has not been rebuilt.”

November was the worst month for the Dow in five years, and many investors have been uncertain that a December rally can happen given the ongoing turmoil in the financial system.

Many corners of the credit markets remain at a standstill — asset-backed commercial paper outstanding fell by $23.1 billion in the week ended Wednesday, the largest drop in a month, indicating low demand.

And meanwhile, consumer spending appears to be suffering from sinking home prices and high gas prices.

Target Corp. fell $4.56, or 7.6 percent, to $55.57, after saying December sales will fall short of its previous forecast. J.C. Penney Co. fell $1.01, or 2.2 percent, to $44.84 after reporting November sales that were below expectations.

Investors remain on the lookout for signs that the Federal Reserve will reduce rates for a third time this year, but they also want to see that the economy is not headed for recession. Several Fed officials in recent weeks have said they expect housing to keep dragging on the economy well into next year.

Ahead of Friday’s highly anticipated report on November payrolls and unemployment, the Labor Department said the number of U.S. workers filing new claims for unemployment benefits fell as expected last week. Still, the four-week average hit a two-year high, suggesting a softening job market.

Advancing issues outnumbered decliners by about 4 to 1 on the New York Stock Exchange. Consolidated volume came to 3.36 billion shares, down from 3.55 billion Wednesday.

Crude oil surged $2.74 to settle at $90.23 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange.

The dollar was mixed against other major currencies, while gold prices slipped.

Overseas, Japan’s Nikkei stock average rose 1.70 percent, while Hong Kong’s Hang Seng index rose 0.73 percent. Britain’s FTSE 100 fell 0.13 percent, Germany’s DAX index fell 0.05 percent, and France’s CAC-40 rose 0.26 percent.