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US stocks rise as investors weigh company earnings, economy and Fed; Dow closes at record high

NEW YORK, N.Y. – The Dow Jones industrial average closed at an all-time high Wednesday as the good narrowly outweighed the bad for the stock market.

After investors assessed a series of company earnings reports, the latest move from the Federal Reserve and an unexpectedly weak reading on first quarter economic growth, the stock market ended with its third straight day of gains.

Stocks started the day lower after the government reported that the U.S. economy stalled in the first three months of the year as winter storms chilled business activity. The Commerce Department said growth slowed to a barely discernible 0.1 per cent annual rate in the January-March quarter, less than the rate of 1.1 per cent forecast by economists, according to FactSet.

The market’s reaction to the report was muted because most investors expect the slowdown to be temporary as growth rebounds with warmer temperatures.

“Most people, including us, expected March to have been the strongest month of the first quarter” and that growth will continue to pick up, said Sean Lynch, global investment strategist for Wells Fargo Private Bank. “That’s an OK environment for the market.”

The Standard & Poor’s 500 index rose 5.62 points, or 0.3 per cent, to 1,883.95. The Dow Jones industrial average rose 45.47 points, or 0.3 per cent, to 16,580.84, four points above its previous record set Dec. 31. It was the first day the index closed in positive territory for the year.

The Nasdaq composite rose 11.01 points, or 0.3 per cent, to 4,114.56.

Some solid earnings reports and corporate deal news helped offset the weak economic report, and by midday stocks had eked out small gains.

Pepco Holdings surged $3.97, or 17.4 per cent, to $26.76 after it agreed to be acquired by nuclear power company Exelon for $6.83 billion, creating a large electric and gas utility in the mid-Atlantic region. Exelon will pay $27.25 per Pepco share, an 18 per cent premium to the company’s $23.10 closing price on Tuesday.

Sealed Air was one of the companies that gained after reporting earnings.

The company’s stock rose $1.72, or 5.3 per cent, to $34.31 after the food packaging company’s earnings easily beat Wall Street’s expectations. The company also said it was on track to post full-year earnings at the upper end of the range of its forecast.

More than 60 per cent of S&P 500 companies have reported first-quarter earnings. Analysts currently expect earnings to grow by 1.7 per cent in the period, according to S&P Capital IQ data. That compares with growth of almost 8 per cent in the fourth quarter and 5.2 per cent in the same period a year ago.

Stocks climbed higher in afternoon trading after the Federal Reserve’s statement following its April policy meeting was in line with investor’s expectations.

The Fed said Wednesday it would reduce its monthly bond purchases by another $10 billion to $45 billion. The stimulus is intended to hold down long-term interest rates and support the mortgage market. The Fed also reaffirmed its plan to keep short-term interest rates low to support the economy “for a considerable time” after its bond purchases end, likely late this year.

Bond prices rose. The yield on the 10-year Treasury note fell to 2.65 per cent from 2.70 per cent on Tuesday. The yield on the note has fallen from 3 per cent at the start of the year.

As bond yields remain close to historical lows, stocks will likely remain attractive to investors, said David Kelly, Chief Global Strategist at JPMorgan funds.

“What else are you supposed to do with your money?” said Kelly. “For lack of something better to do with it, money is going to move back into equities.”

Among other stocks making big moves:

— Twitter fell $3.65, or 8.6 per cent, to $38.97 after its customer growth disappointed investors when it reported quarterly results late Tuesday. Twitter had 255 million monthly users at the end of March, up 25 per cent from a year earlier, but 2 million fewer than industry analysts had expected. Twitter shot higher after its IPO at $26 a share in November, climbing as high as $73.31 in December. The stock has been steadily declining since then.

— Express Scripts, the nation’s largest pharmacy benefits manager, fell $4.43, or 6.2 per cent, to $66.58 after it lowered its earnings guidance for the year, saying that it would handle a lower volume of prescriptions. Express Scripts also reported a 12 per cent drop in its first-quarter earnings Tuesday.