Closing Bell: Upbeat Economic News Helps Drive Stocks Higher

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Seth Wenig/AP

A jump in U.S. auto sales and other good news on the economy helped drive the stock market higher Wednesday, though investors remained focused on whether there would be a Western-led military attack against Syria following a suspected chemical weapons attack on its civilians.

The Dow Jones industrial average (^DJI) rose 96 points, or 0.7 percent, to 14,930, the Standard & Poor's 500 index (^GPSC) added 13 points, or 0.8 percent, to 1,653 and the Nasdaq composite index (^IXIC) jumped 36 points, or 1 percent, to 3,649.

Auto stocks rose sharply after reporting strong sales gains in August, leading the industry toward its best month in six years.

General Motors (GM) said its sales rose 15 percent last month, while Chrysler and Ford (F) each reported 12 percent gains. Toyota (TM) posted the biggest increase as sales rose nearly 23 percent since August of last year. Shares of GM advanced 5 percent to $35.85, while Ford rose 3.5 percent to $16.91.

A Federal Reserve survey showed that all 12 of the Fed's regional banking districts reported modest to moderate economic growth, as Americans bought more cars and homes and auto factories added workers.

The survey, known as the beige book, also showed that job growth was steady and that hiring in manufacturing improved modestly, especially at auto and auto-parts factories, but federal spending cuts resulted in production cutbacks at defense plants in parts of the country.

Benchmark U.S. crude oil fell 1.2 percent to $107.23 a barrel, as investors continued to weigh how an anticipated strike on Syria might effect the flow of oil out of the Middle East.

More Stocks in the News:

  • Apple (AAPL) gained 2.1 percent to $498.69 after Cantor Fitzgerald initiated coverage of the company with a "buy" rating.

  • Dollar General (DG) jumped 4.7 percent to $56.39 after the discount store chain reported profits that narrowly beat Wall Street analyst estimates. In contrast to some of its competitors, Dollar General said sales at stores open more than a year climbed.

  • Francesca's Holdings (FRAN), which operates the Francesca's line of retail stores, plunged after reporting results that fell short of Wall Street estimates. The company cut its forecast for full-year earnings, citing poor customer traffic. Its stock plummeted 26 percent to $17.79.

  • Ciena (CIEN) surged almost 14 percent to $23.54. The developer of high-speed networking technology reported adjusted earnings that were far higher than Wall Street analysts expected, a result of higher revenue and lower costs.

  • Rochester Medical (ROCM) leaped 44 percent to $19.91 after C.R. Bard (BCR) agreed to buy the company for $262 million.

  • H&R Block (HRB) reported an adjusted quarterly loss Tuesday that was wider than expected, sending shares down 0.7 percent to $27.70. SAIC (SAI) fell 4.9 percent to $14.41 after its results. The two companies marked the S&P's two biggest percentage decliners.

  • Hain Celestial Group (HAIN) fell 2 percent to $80.21 a day after the company said activist investor Carl Icahn and his entities were cutting their stake in the company by roughly half.

What to Watch Thursday:

  • Selected chain retailers release August sales.

  • Payroll process releases data on August private sector hiring at 8:15 a.m. Eastern time.

  • The Labor Department reports weekly jobless claims, and revised second quarter data on productivity and costs -- both at 8:30 a.m.

  • At 10 a.m., the Institute for Supply Management releases its service sector index for August; the Commerce Department reports July factory orders; and Freddie Mac releases weekly mortgage rates.

These major companies are scheduled to report corporate quarterly earnings:

-Compiled from staff and wire reports.