FILE - In this Feb. 10, 2012 file photo, traders work on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. Markets were in a jittery mood Thursday as uncertainty escalated over whether Greece will get vital bailout cash to avoid defaulting next month. (AP Photo/Jin Lee, File)
Updated: March 18, 2012 8:12AM
Investors sent U.S. stocks barreling to their highest levels of the year Thursday, buoyed by slivers of encouraging news about jobs and housing. At least for a day, they overlooked the lack of clarity about Greece’s marathon negotiation for a bailout.
The Dow Jones industrial average rose 123.13 points to close at 12,904.08, its third triple-digit gain this year. It was the highest close for the Dow since May 19, 2008, four months before the worst of the financial crisis.
As the Dow moved to within sight of 13,000, applause broke out at the closing bell on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.
The Standard & Poor’s 500 rose 14.81 points to 1,358.04, its highest close in nine and a half months. The Nasdaq composite, which has had an even stronger year than the Dow and S&P and is trading at its highest since 2000, rose 44.02 points to 2,959.85.
The rally was broad, with all but one of the 30 stocks in the Dow, Kraft Foods, closing higher. All 10 industry groups in the S&P were comfortably higher, led by materials stocks, including strong showings from DuPont and Dow Chemical.
General Motors was among the best-performing stocks of the day. Two years after it was almost wiped out, the company turned a record $7.6 billion profit last year, bigger even than when Americans couldn’t stop buying trucks and SUVs.
Microsoft rose 4 percent, as did Bank of America, which tends to swing wildly with the market.
The Labor Department said weekly applications for unemployment benefits dropped for the fourth time in five weeks to the lowest point since March 2008. That was when the jobless rate was just 5.1 percent, far below the current rate of 8.3 percent.
Construction of single-family homes cooled slightly in January, but a rise in permits suggested builders were growing more confident that more buyers are ready to come off the sidelines.
There are doubts about how long the momentum can be sustained, and even questions about what’s sustaining it.
The market has seemed determined to move higher this year, despite mostly incremental and vague news about the Greek debt crisis and sometimes-conflicting reports on the U.S. economy.
“I think we’re floating on air. There’s not much going on,” said Ben Schwartz, chief market strategist at Lightspeed Financial.
He warned that there could be volatility ahead for the market. The Dow has yet to suffer a 100-point loss this year, a sharp contrast to the triple-digit swings that were common last summer.
John Burke, president of Burke Financial Strategies in New Jersey, said he thinks the Federal Reserve has been artificially propping up the market with cheap money generated by low interest rates.
Burke warned that the low rates could allow the U.S. to put off reducing its budget deficit.
“They’re pushing the problem off,” Burke said. “We’re fine today, we’ll avoid recession, but what’s that going to do to us when the term is up?”
Gas prices could be a threat for the U.S. economy, particularly as Iran threatens to cut exports. The average price for a gallon of gasoline is $3.52, the highest on record this time of year, and could climb to $4.25 a gallon by late April.
But others thought the positive jobs and housing reports will continue to be what sways the market.
“The more important story is what clearly is a continuing U.S. recovery,” said Tim Speiss, chairman of personal wealth advisers at EisnerAmper. “I could go find some negative news report, but it would go against what investors are doing.”
The hopeful signs about the economy increased investors’ appetite for higher-risk investments like stocks, and they moved money out of bonds to make room in their portfolios.
The yield on the government’s benchmark 10-year Treasury note, which moves in the opposite direction from its price, was at 1.92 percent before the report on jobless claims. It jumped to 1.96 percent in minutes.
A separate report found that wholesale prices, excluding the volatile food and energy categories, increased 0.4 percent in January, the most in six months. Inflation generally hurts Treasurys by reducing the buying power of the fixed returns they pay.
Also just before the jobs news came out, the euro was sitting at a three-week low against the dollar. But it rallied almost a full penny, to $1.3143 from $1.3063 late Wednesday.
The euro is perceived to be a riskier investment than the dollar, and traders tend to buy riskier currencies and sell safer ones when they perceive the economic situation to be getting better.
As it has for many days, the Greek crisis plodded along without any certainty. The difference this time was that investors didn’t seem to care. European finance ministers will discuss the Greek bailout at a meeting Monday.
Greece is negotiating for breaks on loans due next month in addition to the bailout, which would be aimed at preventing a bankruptcy that could send a shock through the world financial system.
But some investors are growing complacent: They either have faith that the European Union will find a way to keep Greece from defaulting, or they think Greece will default but it won’t matter to the rest of Europe.
Among other stocks that made big moves:
— J.M. Smucker plummeted 8 percent after the company missed analysts’ estimates for net income and revenue. The company said its sales volume fell 10 percent because it raised prices for Jif peanut butter, Folgers coffee and Crisco.
— Molson Coors rose 3 percent after the beer maker beat analysts’ expectations, helped by higher sales of Modelo beer in Japan and Coors Light in Latin America and China.
— Tech stocks rose 1.57 percent, behind only materials companies as the biggest gainers for the day. Some analysts think that tech will prove a wise investment because companies, sitting on cash that they are nervous about investing otherwise, will plow it into new technology. Groupon rose 4 percent.