Stocks traded off the highs of the day, but remained significantly up, as the Federal Reserve reported improving economic conditions across the country, and as upbeat earnings outlooks for banks lifted investor sentiment.
The Dow Jones Industrial Average rose more than 70 points a day after the major indexes closed higher as earnings season got off to a strong start. The Dow was up more than 100 points earlier.
Most blue-chip components advanced, led by JPMorgan, Bank of America and Boeing. Alcoa and Walt Disney slipped.
The S&P 500 and the Nasdaq also rose. The CBOE Volatility Index, widely considered the best gauge of fear in the market, fell below 17.
All key S&P sectors gained, led by financials, energy and materials.
The Federal Reserve's monthly "beige book" release of economic conditions across the country showed the nation's economy strengthened at the end of the year.
The survey did, however, note that the housing market remains troubled, as prices continue to fall and millions of homes remain in foreclsoure.
A successful bond auction in Portugal, and positive earnings outlooks for banks published in several brokerage firm reports, served as catalysts to push stocks higher on Wednesday in the early stages of what many investors expect will be an upbeat earnings season.
The euro rose against the dollaron news of the Portugese bond offering, while the U.S. currency fell against a basket of currencies as well. Gold, meanwhile, gained to close at $1,385.70 an ounce, after initially slipping in the wake of the Portugese bond auction.
The positive tone to the stock market comes as investors realize corporations are well positioned to take advantage of a strengthening economy, said Marc Pado, market strategist at Cantor Fitzgerald.
In the fourth quarter, corporations kept costs low and inventories down as sales rose, Pado said. "There’s the potential for some positive surprises for the fourth quarter, and the prospects for the first quarter are good," Pado said.
"Ultimately we’ll see better jobs data," he added. "As long as that’s the case it’s really hard for bears to get the upper hand here."
Banks rose ahead of major earnings releases, beginning with JPMorgan's on Friday. That bank's stock also got a boost after CEO Jamie Dimon told CNBC JPMorgan is ready to pay an annual dividend of 75 cents to a dollar after it receives approval by the Federal Reserve, which will be conducting stress tests on the largest U.S. banks.
Banks also benefited from Wells Fargo's upgrade of the sector to "overweight" from "market weight." The bank cited the sector's "superior" earnings-per-share growth to the S&P 500.
"We believe continued credit improvement, a return to positive loan growth, and a constructive investment banking outlook will drive average EPS growth of 59% in 2011, well above the 12% expected for the S&P 500," Wells Fargo wrote in a report to clients.
The brokerage also said it expects banks to double their dividend payout ratios to about 30 percent, and said its "top ideas" in the banking sector are: Bank of America, PNC , Comerica , JPMorgan and Goldman Sachs .
Meanwhile, JPMorgan downgraded Goldman Sachsto "neutral" from "overweight" for 2011, citing valuation. Overall, JPMorgan favors European investment banks over U.S. banks, noting that the U.S. banks have outperformed their European peers by 16 percent since the brokerage cited its preference for US investment banks in July 2010.