Stocks edged higher Wednesday after Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke said there was no timeline for drawing down the Fed's bond-buying program. Earnings gains for several major companies also helped.
The Dow Jones industrial average (^DJI) rose 18.67 points, or 0.12 percent, to 15,470.52, while the Standard & Poor's 500 (^GPSC) index climbed 4.65 points, or 0.27 percent, to 1,680.91. The Nasdaq composite (^IXIC) gained 11.50 points, or 0.32 percent, to 3,610.00.
In testimony before the House Financial Services Committee, Bernanke told lawmakers the Fed's timetable for reducing its bond purchases isn't on a "preset course," and that the central bank could increase or decrease the amount based on how the economy performs.
Bernanke noted that the labor market had made some progress since the Fed began buying $85 billion a month in bonds in September, and repeated his belief that the Fed could slow that pace later this year if the economy strengthens.
In other economic news, the Commerce Department reported that housing starts fell to a 10-month low in June, mostly because apartment construction fell sharply. But applications for permits to build single-family houses rose to the highest level in five years, suggesting the housing recovery will continue.
The Federal Reserve said the U.S. economy grew in most parts of the country, from late May through early July. In its latest survey, known as the Beige Book, the Fed said economic activity was bolstered by the housing recovery, consumer spending and increased factory output.
In commodities trading, the price of crude oil rose 48 cents to $106.48 a barrel. Gold fell $12.90, or 1 percent, to $1,277.50 an ounce.
Billionaire activist Carl Icahn renewed his call for Dell (DELL) shareholders to vote against a buyout offer from company founder Michael Dell. Stockholders are scheduled to vote Thursday on Dell's plan to take the No. 3 PC maker private in a $24.4 billion deal. Icahn argues that Michael Dell's $13.65-a-share offer "substantially" undervalues the company. Dell reportedly won't raise his offer, even if the shareholder vote is delayed, a move aimed at boosting support for the deal.
Google (GOOG) appears poised to introduce the next generation of its Nexus tablets -- at least, that's what invitations sent Wednesday to the media suggest. The unveiling is likely to come at a July 24 event in San Francisco.
Among other stocks in the news:
Yahoo (YHOO) rose $2.78, or 10.3 percent, to $29.66 after reassuring investors that it would keep buying back its own stock. The Internet company has already spent $3.6 billion buying back about 190 million of its shares since last year.
Shares of Bank of America (BAC) jumped 38 cents, or 2.7 percent, to $14.30 after the company reported a 70 percent increase in profits, driven largely by cost-cutting. The Charlotte, N.C.-based company earned $3.6 billion in the quarter, or 32 cents a share, beating analyst expectations.
St. Jude Medical (STJ) jumped $2.52, or 5.2 percent, to $50.98 after the medical device maker reported better-than-expected second-quarter earnings on higher sales of its heart-shocking implants.
American Express (AXP) fell $1.50, or 1.9 percent, to $76.77 after a report said European regulators are proposing to cap the lucrative processing fees the card company imposes.
Mattel (MAT) fell $3.17, or 6.8 percent, to $43.16 after its second-quarter net income fell 24 percent, hurt by weak sales in North America and continued softness in Barbie demand, as well as an asset impairment charge.
Knoll Inc. (KNL) reported a drop in its second-quarter revenue and net income, but the results beat market expectations. Shares rose temporarily but ended the day unchanged, at $15.50.
A day after reporting a 4.5 percent rise in profits, CSX Corp. (CSX) officials said investors shouldn't expect much earnings growth this year. The company did predict earnings would grow 10 to 15 percent in 2014 and 2015, as the economy recovers and shipments of crude oil and the sand used in shale oil mining keep growing. CSX stock advanced 43 cents, or 1.8 percent, to settle at $25.07.
What to watch Thursday:
The Labor Department releases weekly jobless claims at 8:30 a.m. Eastern time.
At 10 a.m., Freddie Mac releases weekly mortgage rates, and the Conference Board releases leading indicators for June.
The following major companies are scheduled to report quarterly financial results:
So you're seeing a lot of strength in housing, and it's coming from almost every place geographically ... So that's sort of the big winner. Auto and that whole complex is a big winner. They're doing over 15 million cars this year, up from 8.5 at the bottom. And then you have the energy complex, which is really, really a revolution. This is hard to underestimate the impact of energy and all the natural gas that's being produced and all the subsidiary types of things that come from that activity. And if you add on top of that, technology which is still a very big pocket of strength and quite robust in the United States, you've got some really good stuff happening.
On the other hand we do have the U.S. government at work, trying to decrease growth as rapidly as they can. And so they've, unfortunately, had some success in that area, and that leaves us somewhere in the 2%-plus area.
We think that the next big risk in the industry is rising interest rates. And so we're very focused on what happens when interest rates return to a more historically normal level.
On the positive side, economic fundamentals in the United States continue to improve. The main impediment to growth appears to be the speed and nature of the withdrawal of fiscal stimulus. Debate has actually now opened up on how and when to withdraw some of the monetary expansion. All of this is very good news.
At the same time, the rest of the world looks no stronger. Europe is mired in a recession, Asian growth seems more modest and Japanese attempts to restimulate their economy through monetary stimulation have set off further downward pressure on interest rates and currency values.
The overriding driver of recovery in the housing market remains the underproduction of both single and multifamily product throughout the economic downturn and up to and including this year. Over the past 5 years of housing production, we've built an average of under 700,000 single and multifamily homes total per year, with an average obsolescence rate of approximately 300,000 per year. This compares to a need for new dwelling units per year of between 1.2 million and 1.5 million.
This year, a significantly stronger year of building activity, we will produce approximately 950,000 single and multifamily dwellings, and again, will underserve the country's needs. We have more than absorbed the overbuilding of the early to mid-2000s, and have been underproducing for a protracted period of time. This shortfall will have to be made up, and the builders of both multi and single-family products have been pushing to increase production.
I think when you look at some of the economic indicators, housing starts are up, prices are up on housing. I think housing is a really important measure for us because we have a lot of jobs around that. A lot of contracting roofers, et cetera, around that. All of that is positive. And so we're feeling like we're coming off the end of the year with some momentum, and that will certainly help us.
I think there's reason to be very optimistic when you consider that demographic tailwind that will continue over the next 5 to 10 years, certainly. And then when you think about just the economy itself and you look at the strength of the balance sheets of consumers and corporations, the amount of liquidity out there, combined with the depth of the housing correction, I think there's a good argument we made that the housing cycle we're in right now will be strongest of the last 3 that we've seen.
Although we have seen recent improvements in the U.S. economy, growth is relatively light and confidence remains fragile. In addition, while the market generally feels better about the tail risk in Europe, the economy is challenged.
Given the continued uncertainty in the market, we are not managing the firm with the hope that the macro backdrop will improve. We are focused on managing through a continued difficult operating environment.
We continue to be very concerned about the prospects for the financial markets and the economies of North America and Western Europe, accentuated by potential weakness in China. There continues to be a big disconnect between the financial markets and the underlying economic fundamentals.
Markets are firming. If the economy continues to expand like it is, I think you'll see the banks loosen up. And if sort of rates go up a little bit but underwriting loosens up a bit, I think you'll see similar demand, if not more. That's why we're not troubled by a little uptick in interest rates right now.
The situation in Europe is not even slightly better. It's probably slightly worse. Even if we do not have a Greece event, if you will, the environment is moving from an economic standpoint to recession. And so the mood with our clients over there is still to be thoughtful and to be very mindful about the way they invest. And when clients are thoughtful and mindful, they tend to wait a little bit more and to think further on when and how much they're going to invest.
"I think the whole thing about the 2% extra payroll tax wasn't helpful. Don't forget, in America, the average household makes $50,000. 2% is $1,000 a year. I mean, after tax, that's a hurt in their pocketbook. Gas prices have been going up. I -- and you've seen the retailer results, the Walmarts, Kmarts, Targets, Costcos of the world had, had results less than they expected, not very good. So it's weak. I don't think it's -- I'm not ready to declare it's a permanent decline or a second dip on the recession there, but it's a little nervous as far as what's going on up there."
We're really proud now that the [government budget] deficit could only be $600 billion in the year, and while that's encouraging, it doesn't do anything to fix the long-term problem, and the long-term problem is entitlements. If you take a look at the Medicare and Medicaid in particular and some on Social Security that while debt as a percent of GDP is we'll say around 75% today and under the new estimate grows to 83% by the end of the decade ... You take those same numbers, go up to the next decade and it goes to 135% debt as a percentage of GDP largely driven by the baby boomer generation retiring which no politician, Republican or Democrat, really wants to talk about. They're more than willing to say we got to reform entitlements but as soon as you say well, like what, that's when they all start to back off because they don't want to anger the voters.
I think there's a lot of concern about central banks not just in the U.S., China elsewhere, and maybe they stretched themselves out, and they played this maybe game, you want to call it for quite a while and maybe they are getting a brick wall, and the days of easy and free money may be coming to an end or at least maybe tapering off. But it probably wouldn't be good [for the global economy in the short-term], maybe good for long-term because then it would be more based upon fundamentals rather than speed injections.