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Stocks rebound, end trading session higher

Stocks ended trading higher Thursday after Standard & Poor’s predicted financial companies are nearing the end of the massive asset write-downs.
/ Source: The Associated Press

A fractious Wall Street rebounded from an early plunge to finish moderately higher Thursday, after Standard & Poor’s predicted financial companies are nearing the end of the massive asset write-downs that have devastated the stock and credit markets.

The S&P projection gave investors some hope that the seemingly unrelenting losses from the mortage and credit crisis might indeed be bottoming out. Standard & Poor’s Ratings Services said it estimates writedowns of subprime asset-backed securities could reach $285 billion globally, up from its previous projection of $265 billion, but added that “the end of write-downs is now in sight for large financial institutions.”

“The S&P comment was a positive for the market because investors were relieved to think that the subprime problem may be behind us,” said Al Goldman, chief market strategist at A.G. Edwards.

Wall Street clearly remains anxious, however. On Tuesday, the stock market launched its largest rally in more than five years after the Federal Reserve said it would auction $200 billion in Treasurys to help alleviate investment banks’ financial bind. But since then, stocks have been extremely volatile.

Kim Caughey, equity research analyst at Fort Pitt Capital Group, said that while she is a market bull, it’s possible investors extrapolated a bit too much good news from the S&P report. “I would rather see fewer foreclosures and housing prices bottoming out to decide that the credit crisis is drawing to a close,” she said.

The S&P’s note arrived on the heels of a spate of troubling news. A Carlyle Group fund warned late Wednesday it expects creditors will seize all the fund’s remaining assets after unsuccessful negotiations to prevent its liquidation. Meanwhile, the government reported Thursday an unexpected dip in retail sales, and a research firm said nearly 60 percent more U.S. homes faced foreclosure in February than in the same month last year.

The Dow Jones industrial average finished up 35.50, or 0.29 percent, at 12,145.74, after being down more than 220 points early in the session and then popping up more than 100.

Broader market indexes also recovered from steep early losses. The S&P 500 index rose 6.71, or 0.51 percent, to 1,315.48, while the Nasdaq composite index rose 19.74, or 0.88 percent, at 2,263.61.

Bond prices fell as stocks rose. The yield on the benchmark 10-year Treasury note, which moves opposite its price, rose to 3.54 percent from 3.44 percent late Wednesday.

As investors contend with tight credit markets, they also face weakness in the U.S. dollar and soaring commodities prices. The dollar dropped to fresh lows against the euro and fell below 100 yen during Asian trading Thursday, the weakest level for the greenback against the Japanese currency in 12 years. Gold surpassed the psychological benchmark of $1,000 an ounce for the first time, and crude oil briefly passed $111 a barrel.

Light, sweet crude rose 41 cents to settle at a record $110.33 on the New York Mercantile Exchange.

The Fed’s Open Markets Committee meets next Tuesday and is widely expected to lower interest rates, with many analysts forecasting a drop of 0.50 percentage point. However, in the past few weeks investors have been questioning whether another rate cut will help the economy.

Talk of regulatory changes for the mortgage industry Thursday were largely shrugged off by the market. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson outlined a plan to provide stronger oversight of mortgage lenders, whose lax standards are blamed for touching off the concerns about souring debt that have led to turmoil in the credit markets.

The market remains worried about more evidence of weak consumer spending. The Commerce Department reported that retail sales fell 0.6 percent last month, after analysts predicted an increase of 0.2 percent. Friday, the government releases data on consumer prices.

“Things just aren’t good for the consumer, and thus, they’re not good for Wall Street,” Caughey said. And on the corporate side of the coin, no one is positive which companies and which investors are going to end up losing money if more funds collapse. “It is going to be difficult to see who has the Old Maid card. And time will tell,” she said.

In other economic news, Labor Department said the number of workers seeking unemployment benefits was unchanged last week. A government report released last week said employers cut payrolls by 63,000 in February — the second straight month of losses — and sent a wave of unease across Wall Street.

Advancing issues outnumbered decliners by about 9 to 7 on the New York Stock Exchange, where volume came to 1.84 billion shares.

The Russell 2000 index of smaller companies rose 12.40, or 1.86 percent, to 679.71.

Overseas, Japan’s Nikkei 225 index tumbled 3.3 percent to its lowest level in 2 1/2 years. Britain’s FTSE 100 fell 1.45 percent, Germany’s DAX index slid 1.50 percent, and France’s CAC-40 lost 1.42 percent.