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U.S. stocks inch up, retailers gain

NEW YORK - Stocks edged higher in midday trading Thursday as investors responded to encouraging results from several retailers and analyzed comments from Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen. Best Buy and J.C. Penney were among the gainers.

The Standard & Poor's 500 index was up nine points at 1,854 as of 1:38 p.m. ET. The Dow Jones industrial average rose 75 points to 16,273. The Nasdaq composite rose 28 points to 4,320.

Janet Yellen: No "single metric" to determine... 01:34
Yellen's testimony to the Senate's banking committee hasn't given the stock market a big boost. That's a contrast to her earlier testimony Feb. 11, her first since succeeding Ben Bernanke as head of the Federal Reserve. The Dow logged its biggest point gain of the year that day after Yellen said she would continue Bernanke's easy-money policies.

On Thursday, Yellen noted that some recent economic data have pointed to weaker-than-expected gains in consumer spending and job growth. She said the Fed will be watching to see if the slowdown proves only a temporary blip caused by severe winter weather.

J.C. Penney jumped $1.40, or 23 percent, to $7.36 after the department store chain swung to a small profit in the fourth quarter after posting a big loss in the same period a year earlier. Penney also reported its first quarterly gain in a key revenue figure in more than two years.

Best Buy climbed $1.38, or 5.3 percent, to $27.20 after the company returned to a profit in the fourth quarter and beat Wall Street expectations. Best Buy cut costs to offset declining sales. The specialty electronics retailer says it gained market share during the quarter.

Sears climbed $2.56, or 6.3 percent, to $42.96 after the company said its fourth-quarter loss narrowed. The operator of Sears and Kmart stores lowered expenses and reduced inventories. Sears has been trying to restore profitability by cutting costs, trimming inventory, selling off some assets and spinning off others.

General Motors fell 31 cents, or 0.8 percent, to $36.52 after the U.S. government's auto safety watchdog said it is investigating whether the automaker acted quickly enough to recall 1.6 million older-model small cars in a case linked to 13 deaths.

American businesses ordered fewer long-lasting manufactured goods in January, cutting their demand for aircraft, autos and machinery. But a key category that reflects business investment rose a solid 1.7 percent. Demand rose for electronic products and fabricated metals, such as steel.

The current environment of moderately improving growth and low interest rates still make it an attractive environment for investing in stocks, said Dan Curtin, an investment specialist at JPMorgan Private Bank.

"The data points that we are seeing, although slightly weaker than we might have thought, are still positive for equity valuations," said Curtin.

The yield on the 10-year Treasury note fell to 2.65 percent from 2.67 percent on Wednesday. The price of oil fell 52 cents, or 0.5 percent, to $102.06 a barrel. The price of gold climbed $5.40, or 0.4 percent, to $1,333.40 an ounce.

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