Stocks Hold Gains Ahead of Close; GE Rises

Stocks gained Friday following a handful of positive economic news and after GE boosted its quarterly dividend for the second time this year.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average rose more than 30 points, a day after the blue-chip index ended a couple points lower, while the other major indexes hit two- and three-year highs.

General Electric , Pfizer and JPMorgan gained, while Kraft and Boeing slipped.

The S&P 500 and the Nasdaq also rose, breaking new 52-week highs. On Thursday, the S&P 500 closed at its highest level since September 19, 2008, and the Nasdaq hit its highest close since December 31, 2007. The CBOE Volatility Index, widely considered the best gauge of fear in the market, slipped to nearly 17.

All key S&P 500 sectors advanced, led by industrials, materials and health care.

General Electric shares jumped more than 3 percent after the parent of CNBC announced it would increase its quarterly dividend by 17 percent, its second dividend increase this year.

The dollar was up slightly against a basket of currenciesas the euro fell, after Moody's said it may downgrade the ratings of some Portuguese banks. Meanwhile, Gold fell near $1,380 an ounceand silver declined to around $28 an ounce in the wake of strong U.S. economic news, and a decision by China to raise bank reserve requirements. Oil prices fell below $88 a barrel.

Performance in the stock market was somewhat subdued heading into the weekend over caution about European sovereign debt, tensions on the Korean peninsula and the fact it may take longer for Washington to reach a compromise on a tax cut package than first thought, said J.J. Kinahan, chief derivatives strategist at T.D. Ameritrade.

"Last Friday, we had a big rally because people thought (a tax cut compromise) was a done deal," he said. "Now, people aren’t so sure. The market believes it’s going to done, but it’s not an easy process."

Without a major catalyst this week, stocks have largely been driven by portfolio positioning ahead of expiring futures and options at the end of next week, and ahead of critical economic reports, including data on inflation and retail sales, next week, Kinahan added.

"Next week there will be lots of trading, almost every day," he said.

In addition, "there's a lot of mutual fund money trying to catch up," Kinahan said. "I’m of the personal belief we’ll see a rally as this money continues to flow into the market."

In other stock news, Standard & Poor's reshuffled the broad S&P 500 index, pulling the New York Times , Eastman Kodak and Office Depot , which all fell after the news. The changes will be effective after the close of trading Friday, December 17.

Netflix , F5 Networks and Newfield Exploration , which will replace the exiting companies, all advanced. Netflix, F5 Networks and Newfield Exploration had been in the S&P MidCap 400.

According to S&P, the companies moving into the S&P 500 have a market cap above $7 billion, while the companies exiting have market caps between $1 billion and $3.5 billion.

Also Cablevision Systems will replace King Pharmaceuticals , which is being acquired by Pfizer.

In other news, Pfizer withdrew a blood pressure drug after two people died from liver injuries in Europe, and said it was halting clinical trials of the drug.

On the M&A front, Community Health Systems made an unsolicited takeover offer for Tenet Healthcare for $3.3 billion, sending the firm's shares soaring more than 50 percent. The deal would create the biggest owner of hospital facilities.

And Beckman Coulter skyrocketed after news the biomedical laboratory instruments was reportedly putting itself up for sale.

Elsewhere, Procter & Gamble rose slightly after Goldman Sachs upgraded the consumer products giant to "buy" from "neutral," and raised its price target to $75 a share from $71.

Shares of TJX resumed trading Friday after the retailer announced that it was shuttering its A.J. Wright discount stores, saying it was cutting 4,400 jobs.

Borders shares tumbled more than 10 percent after the bookseller reported a wider loss and a steep drop in sales.

On the tech front, National Semiconductor fell to the bottom of the S&P 500 after JPMorgan downgraded the chipmaker to "neutral" from "overweight," and lowered its price target to $12.50 a share from $15. National Semi reported earnings that rose more than expected on strong sales and improving margins, but the company's forecast for revenue this quarter was below expectations.

And a power outage at a Japanese chip-making plant is causing big headaches for Toshiba, a major supplier of flash memory for popular consumer gadgets such as Apple's iPad and iPhone, according to the Wall Street Journal. The Japanese firm said the disruption means its shipments of NAND flash chips may be reduced by up to 20 percent for the next two months.

Toshiba, which produces the semiconductors in partnership with SanDisk, represents about one-third of the market as the second-largest supplier of the chips after Samsung Electronics.

Meanwhile, Apple said it is preparing to launch new iPads, including models that are about half the size of the current version, and will include front- and back-mounted cameras, supply chain sources told Reuters.

Video game sales climbed 8 percent in Novemberfrom a year ago to $2.99 billion, helped by Microsoft's new motion-detecting controller, Kinect, and popular sales of Activision Blizzard's "Call of Duty: Black Ops," according to research firm NPD Group.

VeriSign rose after the security service provider announced a $516 million special dividend. In addition, Mark Mahaney, Internet research managing director at Citigroup, told CNBC that VeriSign is a likely company that will benefit from the WikiLeaks cyber attacks. Also, S&P equity raised the firm's rating to "hold" from "strong sell."

Green Mountain Coffee Roasters sank after the coffee company reported a current quarter profit outlook below expectations, and warned of volatile coffee costs in the months ahead.

Meanwhile, Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea shares halted after a source told the Wall Street Journal that the supermarket chain may be preparing for a bankruptcy protection filing.

Shares of United Technologies rose after the diversified manufacturer said its profit could rise 7 percent to 14 percent next year. The company expects strong demand in developing economies to offset a weaker U.S. economy.

Wall Street braced for indictments in massive insider trading probe and a number of arrests could be made next week, sources told CNBC.

In the day's economic news, the Thomson Reuters/University of Michigan Survey of Consumers' preliminary December consumer sentiment index rose to 74.2 from 71.6 in the final November reading.

The trade gap fell to $38.7 billion, down from a revised $44.6 billion in September. Analysts surveyed by Reuters had expected the gap to fall slightly to $43.6 billion. Exports rose 3.2 percent and imports declined slightly on slowing demand for industrial and petroleum products, the Commerce Department said Friday.

Pimco's chief executive Mohamed El-Erian said the bond-fund manager had raised its expectations for growth in the economy. El-Erian told CNBC that the recent compromise on the Bush-era tax extension would help boost the economy for now.

A number of other strategists had bullish forecasts for the economy's growth and for the stock market, JP Morgan, Barclays Capital, and Goldman Sachs, expect the S&P 500 will rise to as much as 20 percent by the end of next year, according to some forecasts.

The tax proposal came under fierce criticism from Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives Thursday. The Senate has scheduled a vote on the measure for Monday.

Treasurys were likely to remain in focus after the heavy selloff this week.

Earlier, the market was higher as investors considered the possibility of monetary tightening from China against strong economic data in the region. Both China's import and export data came in stronger than expected in November, giving rise to expectations of interest rate hikes. Later in the day, Chinese officials raised bank reserve requirements in a move to curb inflation.

"There's quite a lot of hesitation in the market, particularly after the figures from China," Ben Critchley, CFD sales trader at IG Index, told

Investors don't want to be caught on the wrong side of a possible rate hike in China next week, Critchley said. Asian indexes closed mostly in the red, but Chinese stocks closed firmly in the green after the economic release. European shares ended at their highest close since September 2008, thanks to upbeat consumer sentiment data.

On Tap Next Week:

MONDAY: FedEx's busiest day.
TUESDAY: NFIB small biz index, PPI, retail sales, business inventories, FOMC meeting announcement; before-the-bell earnings from Best Buy.
WEDNESDAY: CPI, credit card default rates, MBA mortgage applications, New York manufacturing survey, industrial production, housing market index, oil inventories; Honeywell's 2011 outlook and Atlanta Fed Pres Lockhart speaks.
THURSDAY: Housing starts, jobless claims, Philadelphia Fed survey; before-the-bell earnings from FedEx, General Mills; after-the-bell earnings from Oracle, Accenture, Research In Motion, and Take-Two.
FRIDAY: Leading indicators, Quadruple witching.

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