Wall Street finished higher Friday, wrapping up its biggest five-day rally in more than 75 years, even as investors digested signs of a bleak holiday season for retailers and fears that a flurry of reports next week will show more economic distress.
On the short trading day, investors snapped up the battered shares of blue-chip stalwarts Citigroup Inc. and General Motors Corp., fueling a rally that has surprised many market experts whipsawed by wild swings during the past three months.
The market got big boosts over the past week from President-elect Barack Obama naming his economic team, the government propping up Citigroup, and the Federal Reserve deciding to buy massive amounts of mortgage-backed securities. These efforts reassured the market that broad efforts are still being made to fight the financial crisis that intensified in September with the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc.
Just last week, the S&P 500 index fell to its lowest point since 1997 while Citigroup and GM were trading at 15-year and 70-year lows, respectively — touching off worries about how far the market would slide.
While the stock market's strong rebound was certainly welcome, analysts were hesitant about getting too optimistic. Not only did were trading volumes very light on Friday, but investors will be digesting a slew of economic data next week ranging from a reading on the manufacturing sector to the all-important employment report from the Labor Department. Both are expected to be dismal.
"We're seeing some confidence come back into this stock market, but I don't think that's necessarily a reason to be dropping our guard," said Scott Fullman, director of derivatives investment strategy for WJB Capital Group in New York. "You still have to be cautious. There's opportunity, but you have to be extremely selective and defensive."
The stock market closed three hours early the day after Thanksgiving and locked in gains of 16.9 percent for the Dow since the rally began Nov. 21, 19.1 percent for the S&P 500; and 16.7 percent for the Nasdaq.
It was the first time the Dow rose for five consecutive sessions since July 2007, and the biggest five-day percentage gain over five sessions since Aug. 8, 1932. For the S&P 500, it was the first five-day string of gains since July 2007, and the largest five-day percentage gain since March 16, 1933.
The month of November wiped out $1 trillion of shareholder wealth, but the last five days gained $1.2 trillion, according to the Dow Jones Wilshire 5000 Composite Index, which reflects the value of nearly all U.S. stocks.
What could stymie the rally, however, is if the holiday shopping period, which began in earnest Friday, turns out even worse than expected. Wall Street already anticipates that retailers will suffer as consumers, nervous about a difficult job market, lower home values and a jittery stock market, grow more restrained in their spending this year.
"You've seen all sorts of numbers that point to the fact that discretionary spending in the economy has come to an absolute halt," said David Reilly, director of portfolio strategy at Rydex Investments.
Some retail stocks rose Friday as some investors hoped the predictions have been overly dour. Macy's Inc. added 5.6 percent, though some discounters, like Wal-Mart Stores Inc., slipped.
A rare drop in year-over-year holiday spending would be troubling, as it is the most important period of the year for most retailers and because consumer purchases account for more than two-thirds of U.S. economic activity. But while some stores around the nation appeared busy Friday as shoppers looked for bargains, the early evidence was anecdotal and Wall Street would have to wait for cash register tallies.
"The discounting appears to be unbelievable," said Reilly. "The retail sector is going to do whatever it can to get people through the door."
On Friday, the Dow rose 102.43, or 1.17 percent, to 8,829.04.
Broader stock indicators also rose. The S&P 500 index advanced 8.56, or 0.96 percent, to 896.24, while the Nasdaq composite index rose 3.47, or 0.23 percent, to 1,535.57 after spending much of the session lower.
The Russell 2000 index of smaller companies rose 4.28, or 0.91 percent, to 473.14.
Government bonds rose. The yield on the benchmark 10-year Treasury note, which moves opposite its price, tumbled to 2.93 percent from 2.99 percent late Wednesday. The yield on the three-month T-bill, considered one of the safest investments, edged up to 0.05 percent from 0.03 percent Wednesday.
Citigroup was by far the biggest gainer among the 30 stocks that make up the Dow industrials, rising $1.24, or 17.6 percent, to $8.29. Just a week ago, the bank's stock was selling off precipitously, before the government put together a plan to backstop more than $300 billion of the bank's assets.
Ryan Detrick, senior technical strategist at Schaeffer's Investment Research, noted that the day after Thanksgiving is historically a winning day for the market, and that the recent bounce resembles those seen in October when the market stormed higher on relatively light volume only to retreat in the face of gloomy economic readings. Market advances on light volume can indicate that there are simply fewer sellers rather than a strong number of buyers snapping up stocks with conviction.
"We're looking at this like not much more than a light-volume, bear market bounce," Detrick said. "They go away just as quickly as they happen, unfortunately."
In addition to next week's economic data, investors will be waiting to see if Detroit's major automakers can secure federal loans after sending restructuring plans to Capitol Hill by Tuesday. General Motors Corp. rose 43 cents, or 8.9 percent, to $5.24 Friday, while Ford Motor Co. rose 54 cents, or 25 percent, to $2.69. Chrysler LLC isn't publicly traded.
The dollar mostly rose against other major currencies, while gold prices also advanced.
Light, sweet crude fell a penny to settle at $54.43 per barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange.
Advancing issues outpaced decliners by more than 2 to 1 on the New York Stock Exchange, where volume came to a light 787 million shares.
Overseas, Japan's Nikkei stock average fell 0.23 percent. Stocks in India rose a day after trading was suspended because of the terrorist attacks in Mumbai, the country's financial capital. The Sensex Index ended the day with an advance of 0.7 percent.
Britain's FTSE index rose 1.46 percent, Germany's DAX index rose 0.09 percent, and France's CAC-40 advanced 0.38 percent.