Markets & Finance

Stocks End with Gains


'Twas the session before Christmas, and major indexes posted small gains on Thursday as investors hurried to put money into stocks before the year end -- despite disappointing news from drug giant Pfizer (PFE) and other big names.

The Dow Jones industrial average moved higher by 11.23 points, or 0.10%, to 10,827.12. The broader Standard & Poor's 500 index gained 0.56 of a point, or 0.05%, to 1,210.13. The Nasdaq composite index rose 3.59 points, or 0.17%, to 2,160.62.

Stock markets are closed on Friday. Looking ahead to next week, there are no big-name companies scheduled to report earnings.

On the economics front, December consumer confidence figures are due out on Tuesday. The gauge is expected to strengthen to 92 from 90.5 in the previous month.

On Thursday, the Chicago Purchasing Manager's Index, a gauge of regional manufacturing activity, is expected to weaken to a reading of 63 in December from 65.2 in November. Still, any number over 50 represents expansion.

The stock market may in part be benefiting from what Wall Streeters refer to as the "Santa Claus" rally. Typically, U.S. stocks rally in the year's last five sessions and the first two in January.

The higher closing came despite news from Pfizer that the U.S. Food & Drug Administration warned doctors to be careful about prescribing the outfit's painkillers Bextra and Celebrex until it conducts a safety review.

Indeed, holiday cheer did not translate into higher stock prices for all, notably greeting card maker American Greetings (AM), which fell after posting lower profit from operations on weaker sales in its retail and seasonal gift wrap business.

Thursday brought a mixed bag of economic news, as November personal spending firmed to 0.2% vs. the expected 0.3% consensus estimate, while personal income rose 0.3%, slightly above the expected 0.2%. November durable goods orders climbed 1.6%, beating Wall Street's 0.6% prediction. Weekly

jobless claims rose 17,000 to 333,000, in line with Street forecasts.

Consumer sentiment improved to 97.1 for the final December reading of the University of Michigan index, up from the prior reading of 95.7, according to wire-service reports.

Thursday's session brought some discouraging news on the housing sector. November new home sales sank 12% to 1.125 million units. The weakness is perhaps due to weather or seasonal factor distortions that are impacting the reports.

In response to the disappointing home sales data, homebuilding stocks, which neared 52-week highs yesterday, have remained under pressure Thursday.

Crude oil prices ended down Thursday at $44.18 a barrel, after a rise in petroleum inventories reported Wednesday in the EIA's weekly status report raised speculation that increased OPEC output ahead of winter will suffice to meet demand, says S&P MarketScope.

The energy market was also keeping tabs on the fate of Russian oil giant Yukos. Russia's state-owned Rosneft will buy Baikal Finance Group, the company that purchased Yukos's main oil asset. The move seals the Russian government's control over country's oil industry.

Energy futures trading closed early at 1:00 p.m. ET Thursday for the Christmas holiday.

In other company news, Novartis (NVS) said Thursday that the FDA has approved new Enablex extended-release tablets for treatment of overactive bladder with symptoms of urge urinary incontinence, urgency, frequency. The stock was up slightly.

The tech sector was also in focus Thursday on the heels of disappointing profit reports from Micron Technology (MU) that fell slightly below expectations. Shares were down slightly.

Open source software developer Red Hat (RHAT)'s shares continued to fall Thursday afternoon, as it also fell short of revenue forecasts. Some analysts also said the its fourth-quarter revenue outlook was disappointing. Shares were down 13%.

Treasury Market

Treasuries ended slightly lower Thursday in a holiday-shortened session, after a fairly muted response to the day's economic data releases. Action in Treasuries was largely dependent on position squaring heading into the holiday weekend. The benchmark 10-year yield closed at 4.21%.

The dollar continued to fall after the slate of U.S. economic data, trading at $1.35 vs. the euro for the first time ever Thursday on the heels of the poor housing report.

World Markets

European markets closed higher Thursday.

The Financial Times-Stock Exchange 100 index in London closed up 10.3 points at 4,787.7.

Germany's DAX index closed 0.2% higher at 4,251.62.

In Paris, The CAC 40 closed 0.4% higher at 3,819.68 .

Asian markets saw little activity Thursday, ending higher.

Japan's Nikkei index was closed Thursday for a national holiday.

In Hong Kong, the benchmark Hang Seng Index ended up 84.22 points, or 0.60%, to close at 14,235.30, in a flat trading day as investors stayed away ahead of the long Christmas weekend break. The market will close at midday on Friday and reopen on Tuesday.


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