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Solid earnings buoy Wall Street

Stocks advanced Friday in choppy trading as investors weighed positive earnings statements, including a strong quarter from General Electric Co., against muddled economic data.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The Dow Jones industrial average reached its highest level since mid-2002 Friday, as investors greeted strong earnings reports from General Electric Co. and Juniper Networks Inc.

GE’s earnings helped reassure investors skittish following Intel Corp.’s disappointing revenue projections earlier this week.

“The key thing here is that you’re starting to see some aggressive buying coming back into the market,” said Jim Raphalian, head of institutional trading at Charles Schwab. “There’s more than one buyer for any stock being sold, and there are both institutional and retail buyers. And that’s because earnings are showing us that fundamentals are sound.”

The Dow industrials were up 46.66, or 0.4 percent, at 10,600.51 by the close of trading, capping eight straight weeks of gains and hitting a new 52-week high. It was the index’s highest close since March 19, 2002, when it finished at 10,635.30.

The tech-loaded Nasdaq finished Friday up 31.38 points, or 1.5 percent, at 2,140.46, eclipsing the previous 2½-year high reached Monday. And the Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index closed the trading session up 7.78 points, or 0.7 percent, at 1,139.83.

For the week, the Dow 30 index advanced 1.4 percent, while the Nasdaq Composite gained 2.6 percent and saw its sixth straight up week. The S&P 500-stock index advanced 1.6 percent.

GE, a Dow component, posted fourth-quarter profits 47 percent higher than a year ago, boosted by increased industrial demand. GE closed up $1.35 at $33.35, a new 52-week high.

“These early earnings reports show signs of a broad economic recovery,” said Subodh Kumar, chief investment strategist for CIBC World Markets.

“However, unlike the first through third quarters, where the markets responded strongly, the expectations of the earnings are already built into the market prices, so we’ll see more price fluctuation on individual reports,” Kumar added.

Home Depot Inc. raised its year-end profit forecast by 2 cents per share, although it predicted slightly slower growth in 2004. The stock closed down 49 cents at $34.94.

International Business Machines Corp. again drove the market after Smith Barney upgraded the stock and the computer giant landed a $250 million contract to provide Nokia with desktop computers and ongoing services. IBM climbed $1.30 to $95.32, just short of its year high.

Juniper Networks Inc. jumped $7.00, or 31 percent, to close at $29.93 after the network equipment maker posted strong fourth-quarter gains Thursday, beating analysts’ estimates by 2 cents, and promised a rosy outlook for the year. SG Cowen Securities and Merrill Lynch upgraded the company Friday.

Abbott Laboratories Inc. was down $1.70 at $43.25 after announcing its earnings. While the pharmaceutical firm met estimates for the quarter, it said first-quarter and full 2004 earnings will fall short of expectations.

Consumer confidence rose to its highest level in three years in mid-January, according to the University of Michigan’s index. In addition, businesses boosted their inventories by a modest 0.3 percent in November, a sign of wary confidence in the economic rebound.

However, the government announced industrial production was up only 0.1 percent in December, well short of the 0.5 percent expected by Wall Street and the 1 percent growth posted in November.

Once again, the mixed data left Wall Street without any strong indicators to gauge the speed of the recovery, which could cause some investor nervousness in the weeks ahead.

“This has been a challenging week with these kind of economic numbers,” said Sharon Stark, chief fixed income strategist at Legg Mason. “The industrial numbers surprised us again, and if this trend continues, that could create some volatility.”

Advancing issues outnumbered decliners by a 4-to-3 ratio on the New York Stock Exchange, where volume was moderate.

The Russell 2000 index of smaller companies closed Friday up 4.05 points, or 0.7 percent, at 590.41.

Overseas, Japan’s Nikkei stock average rose 1.8 percent. In Europe, Britain’s FTSE 100 closed up 0.7 percent, Germany’s DAX index rose 1.1 percent and France’s CAC-40 finished 1.2 percent higher.