Dow closes above 18,000 for first time

Encouraging economic reports push Dow, S&P to new record highs. Nasdaq stock index falls 16 points, however.

Seth Wenig/AP
Peter Tuchman wears a "DOW 18,000" hat on the floor at the New York Stock Exchange in New York, Tuesday, Dec. 23, 2014. The Dow Jones industrial average closed at 18,024, its first time above the 18,000-point mark.

In a year full of market milestones, Wall Street crushed a couple more Tuesday, lifting the Dow Jones industrial average past the 18,000-point mark for the first time and delivering the Standard & Poor's 500 index its second record-high close in two days.

Investors welcomed the latest encouraging news on the economy as the government said the U.S. grew at the fastest pace in more than a decade in the third quarter. The economic report card raised expectations for greater demand for fuel, driving oil prices higher as well as energy stocks, which have been beaten down this year by the sharp decline in the price of crude.

The Dow gained 64.73 points Tuesday to close at 18,024.17 That's up 0.4 percent from its previous record close on Monday. The latest close is the Dow's second 1,000-point milestone this year after closing above 17,000 for the first time in July.

The S&P 500 rose 3.63 points to 2,082.17. That's a gain of 0.2 percent from its own all-time high recorded a day earlier.

The Nasdaq composite fell 16 points, or 0.3 percent, to 4,765.42.

U.S. government bond prices declined. The yield on the 10-year Treasury note rose to 2.26 percent.

The stock market rally gave the Dow and the S&P 500 their fifth straight gain. The indexes have recovered the last of the ground they lost in an early-December slump. It also marked the 51st all-time high for the S&P 500 and the 36th for the Dow this year, according to S&P Dow Jones Indices.

"This is going to end up being a bit better of a year for stocks and bonds than most people thought coming in," said Bob Doll, chief equity strategist at Nuveen Asset Management. "The economy caught some steam and it's able to stand up with its own two feet."

While the U.S. economy has been gaining momentum, Europe is struggling to grow, Japan has slid into recession and China is straining to manage a slowdown. Russia envisions a recession next year.

Overseas market indexes are lagging Wall Street. Germany's DAX is up just 3.9 percent this year, while France's CAC-40 is up only 0.4 percent. Britain's FTSE is down 2.2 percent. By comparison, the S&P 500 is up 12.7 percent this year, while the Dow has gained 8.7 percent. The Nasdaq is up 14.1 percent.

Despite weak growth overseas and geopolitical troubles, investors have repeatedly bet on the U.S. economy and corporate earnings growth this year, pushing stock prices higher.

The market has been going steadily higher for the last two weeks after hitting a recent low of 17,069 on Dec. 16 as traders worried about plunging oil prices and a sharp drop in Russia's currency. Investors have been encouraged by signs of strength in the U.S. economy and reassurances that the Federal Reserve won't raise interest rates soon. Those trends bode well for the bull market run, which is on track to mark its sixth year in March.

The indexes' new heights have made stocks more expensive. Investors are paying $17.60 for every $1 in earnings for companies in the S&P 500. That's above the long-term average price-to-earnings ratio of $16.

Even so, stocks are not overvalued, said Cameron Hinds, regional chief investment officer at Wells Fargo Private Bank.

"You have to understand that U.S. economic output is at an all-time high and corporate profits are at an all-time high," Hinds said. "Bull markets typically don't die purely of old age, they tend to die of recessions and overvaluation and perhaps policy mistakes, and we don't see any of those on the horizon."

The market started off Tuesday's record run early in the day, with the Dow and the S&P opening slightly higher. Shortly after, the Dow topped 18,000 points for the first time, while the S&P extended beyond the all-time high from the day before.

The Nasdaq trailed the other two indexes, weighed down by a broad slide in biotech stocks.

Express Scripts, the nation's largest pharmacy benefits manager, is putting pressure on drugmakers like Gilead Sciences and others to lower prices. Gilead shed $3.45, or 3.7 percent, to $89.45. Express Scripts rose $3.55, or 4.3 percent, to $85.88.

Investors were monitoring a mixed bag of economic reports Tuesday.

The Commerce Department reported that the economy grew at a 5 percent annual rate in the July-September period, powered by stronger consumer spending and business investment. That's the fastest quarterly growth since the summer of 2003.

Consumer spending grew at the fastest pace in three months in November, while income posted the best gain in five months. Factory orders for long-lasting manufactured goods declined last month. And sales of new homes slid 1.6 percent in November to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 438,000, the second consecutive monthly decline.

As the Monitor's Mark Trumbull reported Tuesday:

Tuesday’s report revised prior GDP estimates upward by more than forecasters had expected, and propelled a strong start for the US stock market. The Dow Jones Industrial Average rose above the 18000 mark for the first time, and the Standard & Poor’s 500 stock index also hit a new record trading level, Reuters reported.

All this raises an obvious question: After years of struggle, how good is the current economy getting?

Forecasters warn against extrapolating eye-popping numbers as the new normal, but there’s plenty to celebrate. The US economy appears to be nearing a point at which Americans might begin to view it positively. 

The good news: Growth appears solidly on track – not at a 5 percent pace in 2015 but possibly at a respectable 3 percent, many economists say. Consumer confidence has been trending upward, and Americans are feeling better about the job market. Wages showed some pickup in November, according to Tuesday’s other Commerce Department report. And falling oil prices have given drivers a gas-pump dividend.

Oil prices stabilized after a recent rout. Benchmark U.S. crude rose $1.86 to close at $57.12 a barrel. The price has fallen by about half from a peak of $107 a barrel in June due to abundant supplies and waning global demand for energy.

Brent crude, a benchmark for international oils used by many U.S. refineries, rose $1.58 to close at $61.69 in London.

In other futures trading, wholesale gasoline rose 3.5 cents to close at $1.570 a gallon, while heating oil added 4 cents to close at $1.991 a gallon. Natural gas rose 2.7 cents to close at $3.171 per 1,000 cubic feet.

Precious and industrial metals futures closed mixed.

Gold slipped $1.80 to $1,178 an ounce. Silver edged up eight cents to $15.77 an ounce and copper slipped less than a penny to $2.87 a pound.

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