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Stocks end back-and-forth day slightly higher

Stocks finished higher Thursday as investors set aside some concerns about downbeat economic reports and focused on strong profits from Oracle Corp.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Stocks finished higher Thursday as investors set aside some concerns about downbeat economic reports and focused on strong profits from Oracle Corp.

Corporate results and economic news offered investors a mixed picture and kept stocks fluctuating throughout much of the session.

Oracle Corp.’s upbeat results poked holes in Wall Street’s recent pessimism, and even a report from Bear Stearns Cos. of its first-ever quarterly loss seemed to offer relief to those fearing its results could have been worse.

Economic news appeared to weigh on investors at times, however. The Philadelphia Federal Reserve said at midday that its index of regional business conditions showed a reading of a negative 5.7, down sharply from a positive 8.2 in November.

The report came after word that a gauge of future business activity fell last month to its lowest level in more than two years. The Conference Board said its index of leading indicators, which looks three to six months ahead, dropped 0.4 percent in November. The reading suggests the economy could weaken in 2008 amid tight credit and continued troubles in the housing sector.

While investors ultimately seemed to look beyond the economic news, Sean Simko, head of fixed income management SEI Investments, said Wall Street’s recent moves aren’t showing much conviction given relatively light trading volumes.

“You still have the uncertainty of what’s going to come out the next day and you have the year-end coming up, so the market’s trading thin. A lot of people probably are sitting on the sidelines. That’s why these moves are exaggerated.”

The Dow Jones industrial average rose 38.37, or 0.29 percent, to 13,245.64.

Broader stock indicators also gained. The Standard & Poor’s 500 index advanced 7.12, 0.49 percent, to 1,460.12, and Oracle’s results helped push the tech-heavy Nasdaq composite index up 39.85, or 1.53 percent, to 2,640.86.

Advancing issues outnumbered decliners by about 9 to 7 on the New York Stock Exchange, where consolidated volume came to 3.39 billion shares compared with 3.3 billion shares traded Wednesday.

The stock market’s relatively quiet session follows several up-and-down weeks that have left investors trying to gauge how the economy will fare.

While Wall Street heads toward holiday-shortened weeks that often bring little action, stocks could still see further volatility, particularly given the expiration of options contracts Friday. Known as “quadruple witching,” it marks the expiration of contracts for stock index futures, stock index options, stock options and single stock futures.

The report from Bear Stearns came a day after Morgan Stanley said an investment arm of the Chinese government had agreed to invest $5 billion in the company. The news calmed some fears that Wall Street’s major players would face severe liquidity crunches. Banks worldwide have been hesitant to lend to each other amid concerns about souring debt tied to mortgages.

Doug Roberts, chief investment strategist at Channel Capital Research, contends the ability of banks like Morgan Stanley and Citigroup Inc. to arrange cash infusions from well-healed foreign governments appeared to quiet some of Wall Street’s unease.

“The Morgan Stanley announcement combined with the Citigroup announcement establishes this kind of a backstop on the financials. It’s not a firm thing, but it kind of gives the shorts some room for pause,” he said, referring to short-sellers. Short sellers profit by accurately predicting when stocks will fall.

He also said Oracle’s results indicate that some companies will still be able show growth even as tight credit markets make it harder for some companies to raise capital.

Oracle rose $1.34, or 6.5 percent, to $22.10 after its report.

In other corporate news, Bear Stearns rose 82 cents to $91.42 after its report that turmoil in the credit market reduced the investment bank’s portfolio by $1.2 billion in the fourth quarter, leading to a hefty loss.

Meanwhile, investors still faced questions about the health of the credit markets. MBIA Inc. fell $7.07, or 26.2 percent, to $19.95 after the Fitch Ratings service warned it might cut its rating on MBIA in the next six weeks if the nation’s largest bond insurer can’t find $1 billion in new capital. MBIA has said its investment holdings included more than $30 billion of the risky debt that has troubled Wall Street in recent months.

The Russell 2000 index of smaller companies rose 11.41, or 1.51 percent, to 767.54.

Bond prices finished higher but selling in after-hours trading pushed yields above their closing levels. The yield on the 10-year Treasury note, which moves opposite its price, stood at 4.06 percent in after-hours trading compared with 4.03 percent late Wednesday.

The dollar rose versus other most major currencies, while gold prices fell.

Overseas, Japan’s Nikkei stock average rose 0.01 percent, and Hong Kong’s Hang Seng index slipped 0.05 percent. Britain’s FTSE 100 rose 0.97 percent and Germany’s DAX index rose 0.41 percent.