Stocks Close Higher

Strong guidance from Alcoa and Dell -- and a fall in oil prices -- helped lift the market

Stocks ended higher on Thursday as firm outlooks from two marquee names -- Dow component Alcoa (AA ) and tech giant Dell (DELL ) -- boosted earnings sentiment, according to Standard and Poor's Marketscope. Major indexes were strong in the afternoon, breaking a recent pattern of late-day weakness.

On Thursday, the Dow Jones industrial average gained 62.00 points, or 0.59%, to 10,548.02. The broader Standard & Poor's 500 index rose 7.29 points, or 0.62%, to 1,191.36. The Nasdaq composite index gained 19.65 points, or 0.98%, to 2,018.79.

Looking ahead to Friday, there are no major economic reports scheduled for release.

In economic news Thursday, weekly initial jobless claims fell to 334,000 from an upwardly revised 350,000 the previous week. February wholesale inventories rose 0.6%, just shy of the expected 0.8%.

Crude oil prices settled down $1.74 to $54.11 per barrel Thursday afternoon. Action Economics said a sell off in gasoline futures preceded the drop in oil prices, with speculative funds "bailing out in unison."

In corporate news, Qwest Communications (Q ) is not giving up its bid for of MCI (MCI ), which on Wednesday again affirmed its deal to be acquired by Verizon Communications (VZ ), according to the New York Times. The newspaper reported that Qwest has requested MCI's shareholder list, which suggests a proxy battle may be ahead. The Financial Times also reported that Qwest may raise its offer for MCI to between $28.50 and $29 a share, or as much as $9.4 billion.

The Food and Drug Administration said Thursday it has asked drugmaker Pfizer (PFE ) (PFE) to withdraw the painkiller Bextra from the market, because it brings a risk of heart attack and stroke. The agency also asked Pfizer to add a strong warning to the label of Celebrex.

Retailers were generally weak, after reporting some disappointing March sales figures. Wal-Mart (WMT ) said that first-quarter earnings will be at the low end of its previous forecast of 56 cents to 58 cents per share. The retail giant's same-store U.S. sales rose 4.3 % in March, just under analysts' forecasts.

Limited Brands (LTD ) said its same store sales fell a worse-than-expected 7% in March. The operator of Victoria's Secret, Bath & Body Works and Express, said sales for the five weeks ended April 2 were $766.1 million, down from $738.7 million in the previous year. Clothing retailer Talbots also said that same-store sales rose 0.9% in March. The chain also said that first-quarter earnings would be at the low end of its earlier forecast of 59 cents to 63 cents.

Among those beating Wall Street's expectations was Bed, Bath & Beyond, which gained after reporting fiscal fourth-quarter earnings rose 25%, while same-store sales increased 5.1%.

After the close of trading Wednesday, aluminum producer Alcoa reported a 27% drop in first quarter profits, compared to the period last year. Net income fell to $260 million, or 30 cents per share, from $355 million last year, or 41 cents per share last year. The company's earnings from continuing operations of 40 cents a share, however, came in slightly higher then analysts' forecasts.

Also on Wednesday, computer-maker Dell (DELL ) affirmed its earlier first-quarter earnings estimate of 37 cents a share, up 16% from last year, and sales forecast of $13.4 billion, up 32%.

Treasury Market

The drop in oil prices pushed Treasuries lower Thursday. According to Action Economics, bonds have been supported in recent sessions by a forecast of weakening global growth based on high oil prices. The fall in oil prices below $55, Action says, was the "catalyst" for profit-taking in Treasuries. The yield on the benchmark 10-year note rose to 4.47%.

World Markets

European stock markets closed higher Thursday as the European Central Bank and the Bank of England each left rates unchanged. London's Financial Times-Stock Exchange 100 index was up 29.60 points, or 0.60%, to 4,977.00, even though U.K. February industrial production fell 0.4%, manufacturing output fell 0.5%, and oil prices were climbing.

Germany's DAX index gained 10.34 points to 4,389.52 as German February industrial production plunged 2.2%.

In Paris, the CAC 40 index was up 17.38 points, or 0.42%, to 4124.37.

Asian markets finished mixed on Thursday. In Japan, the Nikkei 225 index fell 16.17 points, or 0.14%, to 11,810.99.

Hong Kong's Hang Seng gained 40.09 points, or 0.30%, to 13,602.35..

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