Strong earnings and job news give stocks a lift

After a shaky start, U.S. stocks rebounded Thursday, snapping a two-day losing streak.

Investors welcomed better-than-expected quarterly results from several companies, including Ford, Coach and Harley-Davidson. Homebuilder stocks surged.

Even energy stocks, which were down most of the day, recovered in concert with a slight uptick in oil prices. Benchmark U.S. crude oil rose 8 cents to close at $44.53 a barrel.

New government data showing that applications for unemployment benefits fell to the lowest level in almost 15 years added a dash of favorable economic news.

The broader market rally helped the major stock indexes regain some of the ground they lost earlier in the week, though they remain down for the year.

“We’ve had a bit of a turnaround since the lows we saw earlier in the day,” said Anastasia Amoroso, global market strategist at J.P. Morgan Funds. “It appears earnings outside of energy (stocks) have been rather strong.”

Investors have had no shortage of market-moving news to digest this week, from the outcome of a national election in Greece with potential implications for the Eurozone, to the Federal Reserve’s latest take on the economy and interest rates. It’s also the busiest week of the current earnings season, with 142 companies in the Standard & Poor’s 500 scheduled to report.

The Dow Jones industrial average rose 225.48 points, or 1.3 percent, to close at 17,416.85. The S&P 500 index gained 19.09 points, or 1 percent, to 2,021.25. The Nasdaq composite added 45.41 points, or 1 percent, to 4,683.41.

The gains were broad. All 10 sectors in the S&P 500 rose, led by materials stocks. Even energy stocks, which are down more than any other sector this year, eked out a 0.2 percent gain.

Electronics and audio equipment maker Harman International Industries led among the gainers, rising $24, or 23.7 percent, to $125.01. The company reported better-than-expected quarterly results and raised its profit forecast for the year.

Chipmaker Qualcomm notched the biggest drop among stocks in the S&P 500, shedding $7.30, or 10.3 percent, to $63.69.

The major market indexes drifted along through much of Thursday before turning higher in the afternoon. For much of the day, investors looked mainly on the latest batch of corporate earnings.

Homebuilders surged after PulteGroup reported that completed home sales increased 7 percent in the October-December quarter. PulteGroup climbed $1.24, or 6 percent, to $21.82. Rival Ryland Group led the sector, climbing $2.95, or 8 percent, to $39.62.

Traders also digested the implications of the steep drop in weekly unemployment benefit claims last week.

The big drop is a sign that hiring will likely remain healthy, which could bolster the case for the Federal Reserve to raise interest rates from near zero sooner, rather than later, said Doug Cote, chief market strategist for Voya Investment Management.

“The market is reacting to the Fed being intent on normalizing interest rate policy, and today’s numbers added to that pressure,” Cote said.

Higher interest rates tend to make stocks less attractive in comparison to bonds.

The S&P 500 hit a record in late December, and it’s remained relatively close to that since. Expectations for earnings, meanwhile, have been sinking with the price of crude oil.

Some companies have given weaker outlooks for growth, citing the impact of falling oil or a strengthening dollar.

That’s contributed to heightened volatility in the market this month.

The average day-to-day swing for the S&P 500 index in either direction last year was about 10 points, but so far this year it’s been about 20 points, said Randy Frederick, managing director of trading and derivatives at Schwab Center for Financial Research.

“It’s oil prices, it’s the dollar, it’s interest rates, it’s the Fed,” said Frederick. “We’re still bullish about the market, but we think volatility is not going to be as low as it was last year and right now that’s been the case.”

Chevron, Tyson Foods and Newell Rubbermaid are among the companies due to report earnings on Friday.

Investors also will have their eye on the government’s latest estimate of U.S. economic growth in the fourth quarter, consumer sentiment, and a key report on wage growth.

“If it’s way off the (market) expectations either way it could be a market mover,” Frederick said.

U.S. government bond prices fell. The yield on the 10-year Treasury note rose to 1.75 percent from 1.72 percent late Wednesday.

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