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Stocks end higher after Fed holds rates steady

Wall Street ended another tumultuous session with a sizable gain Tuesday, partly recovering from its worst sell-off in years after the Fed said it was keeping rates steady.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Wall Street ended another tumultuous session with a sizable gain Tuesday, partly recovering from its worst sell-off in years after the Federal Reserve said it was keeping interest rates steady. Speculation that troubled insurer American International Group Inc. might come up with a much-needed cash injection made room for many financial stocks to rally.

A day after the Dow Jones industrial average fell more than 500 points amid surging fears about the financial sector, investors alternately despaired and grew optimistic about the prospects for AIG. As one of the 30 stocks that make up the Dow, the company’s fluctuations tugged at the blue chip index throughout the session. The Dow at turns rose and fell as much as 175 points before ending up 141.

Meanwhile, the Fed’s decision, while not popular with investors clamoring for a rate cut to boost market sentiment, appeared to sidestep the second-guessing about the health of the economy that can follow a cut in difficult times. The Fed, acknowledging strains upon the financial markets, reminded investors that it has taken steps to add more cash to the banking system. Those moves and earlier rate cuts should foster moderate economic growth over time, the central bank said in the statement accompanying its rate decision.

“This was the right thing to do,” said Tom Higgins, chief economist at Payden & Rygel Investment Management in Los Angeles. “I just don’t think the Fed should be responding to the financial market crisis at this stage.”

Worries about the well-being of AIG intensified this week after several ratings agencies downgraded the company’s credit, in turn forcing the insurer to come up with more capital. Investors fear that a failure by the world’s largest insurer would touch off a wave of financial turmoil.

Varying reports that the company might be working on some type of loan, perhaps from the government, corralled some of the market’s worries about the company and AIG finished well off its lows. The stock fell $1.01, or 21 percent, to $3.75 after trading as low as $1.25.

The Dow rose 141.51, or 1.30 percent, to 11,059.02, after falling about 100 points immediately after the Fed announcement. Its 504-point drop Monday was its worst showing since the September 2001 terror attacks.

Broader stock indicators advanced. The Standard & Poor’s 500 index rose 20.90, or 1.75 percent, to 1,213.60, and the Nasdaq composite index rose 27.99, or 1.28 percent, to 2,207.90.

Bond prices also fluctuated during the day as investors sought and then turned away from the safety of government debt. Bonds ended little changed, with the yield on the benchmark 10-year Treasury note unchanged at 7.41 percent. The dollar was mixed against other major currencies, while gold prices fell.

Light, sweet crude for October delivery fell $3.70 to settle at $92.01 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange, bringing its two-day decline to $10, as investors placed bets that a slowing economy will crimp demand. Gas prices continued to following the disruption to supplies brought by Hurricane Ike, though they were expected to moderate in the coming weeks.

The Fed has cut its target federal funds rate by 3.25 percentage points to its current level of 2 percent over the past year. Many on Wall Street expected the Fed to keep rates steady but there was some hope that the central bank would try to calm uneasy financial markets with a rate cut.

Still, the fact that the Fed didn’t lower rates was a sign that it doesn’t believe the economy needs that type of stimulus. It reiterated that it believed its moves to inject more liquidity into the banking system to help struggling financial institutions would help them, and in turn the economy overall.

Markets around the world have been reeling this week from the bankruptcy filing of Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. and the quickly assembled weekend sale of Merrill Lynch & Co. to Bank of America Corp. Investors worry that tectonic shifts in the power structure of Wall Street signal that the financial sector’s trouble with imperiled credit are far from over.

But the partial recovery in shares of AIG as well and some of the other financial stocks that led the market lower Monday were a welcome boost to investor sentiment. JPMorgan Chase & Co. rose $3.74, or 10 percent, to $40.74, while Wells Fargo & Co. rose $3.93, or 13 percent, to $34.93.

Steven Goldman, chief market strategist at Weeden & Co., said investors are starting to examine even troubled sectors like banks to pluck out those that have managed to sidestep the worst of the credit troubles.

“There are some silver linings in a dire picture,” he said, referring to some of the gainers.

Names that investors often rely on as safe bets in a weak economy also rose. Wal-Mart Stores Inc. advanced 51 cents to $62.14, while McDonald’s Corp. rose 57 cents to $64.29.

The market showed little reaction to the first drop in the Labor Department’s Consumer Price Index in nearly two years. The CPI fell 0.1 percent last month, while the index excluding food and energy costs edged up a mild 0.2 percent. Both figures were in line with analyst expectations.

In corporate news, Goldman Sachs Group Inc., the largest of the two big independent investment banks on Wall Street, posted its sharpest decline in earnings since becoming a public company in 1999. The company said quarterly earnings fell 70 percent from a year earlier and that it saw a marked decrease in client activity. The profit results were better than Wall Street had been expecting, though revenue fell short. The stock fell $2.49 to $133.01.

Morgan Stanley, Goldman’s smaller rival, fell $3.49, or 11 percent, to $28.70, then reported better-than-expected results after the closing bell.

Dell Inc. warned that it sees a further softening in global demand in the current quarter. The computer manufacturer fell $2.01, or 11 percent, to $15.98.

Hewlett-Packard Co. announced plans Monday to cut 24,600 jobs, or about 8 percent of its work force, over the next three years as it works through its acquisition of technology-services company Electronic Data Systems Corp. HP shares were little changed early Tuesday. HP rose $3.08, or 6.8 percent, to $48.41.

The Russell 2000 index of smaller companies rose 20.89, or 3.03 percent, to 710.65.

Overseas, markets in Asia fell sharply Tuesday after being closed Monday. Japan’s Nikkei stock average fell 4.95 percent. Hong Kong’s Hang Seng index lost 5.44 percent.

In Europe, Britain’s FTSE 100 fell 3.43 percent, Germany’s DAX index lost 1.63 percent, and France’s CAC-40 fell 1.96 percent.