S&P Passes 1,400; Bank Stocks Lead Rally

The Standard & Poor's 500 cracked the 1,400 barrier for the first time in nearly four years as the stock market continued its incremental but consistent push higher.

It was the first time the S&P closed above 1,400, the Nasdaq above 3,000 and the Dow better than 13,000 in market history.

Led by financials, stocks put together their seventh-consecutive winning day despite marginal weakness in some defensive names.

Applegarnered its own barrier-breaking headlines earlier in the session, nicking the $600 level for the first time, though it later receded and actually ended up negative for the day. The drop came after Deutsche Bank removed the stock from its conviction buy list.

S&P 500

But it was an otherwise ho-hum trading day as volume stayed low and conviction remained weak.

Market volume has been anemic for weeks, and some expect trading to stay that way for some time.

"Many people have observed the lowly volumes accompanying the latest run-up in the equity markets," said Andrew Wilkinson, chief economic strategist at Miller Tabak in New York. "Times have changed and participation is simply lower."

Of the 10 Standard & Poor's 500 sectors, only utilities posted negative numbers for the day, and even then only slightly. Financials gained 1.8 percent while industrials rose 1.2 percent.

Economic news helped set the tone, as the government said weekly jobless claims regained a four-year low while producer prices rose 0.4 percent, boosted primarily from an energy price increase. New York manufacturing rose unexpectedly, though that survey also showed prices pressures building.

Also, the Philadelphia Federal Reserve Bank's business activity indexrose for a fifth month in a row to 12.5 from 10.2 in February, topping economists' expectations of 12.0, though new orders slowed.

Traders were hoping to push the market to its sixth consecutive daily gain, though light trading volumes and tight ranges suggest a more apprehensive market mood.

"Stocks are overbought, but the market’s still bullish and money is still flowing out of debt securities and into equities, so it is improper to be bearish, but it is difficult being bullish," said Dennis Gartman, hedge fund manager and author of The Gartman Letter. "Thus the sidelines seem enticing and so we’ve made our way there, likely to remain for some while longer."

Elsewhere on the major indexes, Bank of America helped pace a small field of Dow gainers as it passed the $9 mark for the first time since August. BofA led a slew of big banks higher, also including Citigroup and Goldman Sachs.

Cisco, which has reached a dealto buy London-based NDS for $5 billion, led bluechips in red numbers.

Transports , though, far outpaced the Dow 30, gaining about 3 percent in the morning session. Market watchers consider transportation stocks a reliable barometer of economic activity and a key component in Dow Theory to confirm a rally.

Advanced Micro Devices , bolstered by a "buy" rating from Jefferies, led gainers on the S&P 500 while Assurant was the index's biggest loser.

The biggest non-stocks story of the day came in energy, off news that the U.S. and United Kingdom leaders are in talks to tap the Strategic Petroleum Reserves in an effort to cut oil prices and reduce the cost of gasoline.

Oil prices moved lower on the news, and the Reuters Jefferies CRB Index also was negative on the session.

In company news, clothing maker Guess? disappointed the market by forecasting earnings of 25 to 28 cents per share, well below estimates of 48 cents. The company said sales have fallen in Europe, where consumers have taken a hit from government austerity measures connected to the sovereign debt crisis.

Guess?, which gets 40 percent of its revenue from Europe, saw its shares slide more than 11 percent.

Capital One Financial shares rose after the credit leader announced a $1.25 billion common stock offeringto finance its previously announced acquisition of HSBC's U.S. credit card business.

Online auctioneer EBay shares slid as Credit Suisse lowered the company to "neutral" from "buy," saying the move was strictly a value call on a company it still considers fundamentally sound. Shares had hit a four-year high; Credit Suisse said it is maintaining its $40 price target.

Also, Radvision shares moved higher on news that the Israeli video conferencing company is being bought by equipment market Avaya in a deal worth $230 million.

The controversy generated Wednesday by former Goldman Sachs executive Greg Smith remained in the news. Smith announced his resignationin a scathing op-ed the New York Times published, and Goldman executives responded with a sharp rebuttal against Smith's charges that the company had lost sight of its mission and put the company's goals ahead of customer service.

JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon issued a memoof his own, telling the bank's workers to focus on their own standards and to avoid trying to capitalize on another firm's troubles.

Shares of both companies traded slightly higher in premarket action.

Bond yields took a mild breather, with the benchmark 10-year note edging lower to 2.26 percent.

The U.S. free trade agreement with South Korea goes into force on Thursday, having been signed by President Obama on October 21 of last year. Under the agreement, almost 80 percent of U.S. exports of industrial products and around 65 percent of agricultural products will become duty-free.

European shares clsoed mostly higher after Wednesday’s rally.