Stock markets gain as Greek crisis nears deadline

Stock markets rise as optimism builds about Greek debt exchange; investors shrug off jobs data

Associated Press
Stocks gain as Greek nears a deal on debt swap
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Traders work on the floor at the New York Stock Exchange in New York, Tuesday, March 6, 2012. Stocks are opening higher Thursday, March 8, 2012 as an increase in applications for unemployment benefits last week failed to dampen optimism over progress toward easing Greece's debt burden. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

NEW YORK (AP) -- Stocks gained Thursday as signs indicated that a deal to restructure Greece's debt will succeed, overshadowing a small increase in applications for unemployment benefits last week.

The Dow Jones industrial average was up 68 points at 12,905 in afternoon trading.

The Standard & Poor's 500 index, a broader measure of the market, gained 12 to 1,364. All 10 industry sectors rose, led by materials companies. The Nasdaq composite index rose 32 to 2,968.

The market was headed for its second straight increase following a 203-point plunge in the Dow Tuesday, the first triple-digit loss for the index since the start of the year. Together with Wednesday's 78-point gain, the Dow has now made up more than half of that loss.

Friday marks the three-year anniversary of the stock market's bottom during the financial crisis. The S&P 500 and the Dow have both roughly doubled since then.

Investors were keeping their eyes on a 3 p.m. EST deadline for private investors to decide whether to swap $140 billion in Greek government bonds for new ones worth much less.

If not enough private bondholders take part in the exchange, Greece could default in the next two weeks. Greek government officials told The Associated Press that participation was above 75 percent.

Athens will release final results Friday morning.

The Labor Department said early Thursday that the number of people seeking unemployment benefits rose slightly more than expected last week. The four-week average remained near a four-year low, however, and applications are down 14 percent since October.

The government will issue its February jobs report on Friday, and economists are expecting more than 200,000 net jobs were added. If that prediction is correct, it would likely translate into a drop the unemployment rate for the sixth straight month, from 8.3 percent in January.

"The trend here is that the job market has continued to grind higher, and I don't see any reason why tomorrow's number shouldn't be a good one," said Phil Orlando, chief equity market strategist at Federated Investors. He pointed to a private estimate of hiring released Wednesday that exceeded expectations and the unemployment claims figures as good indicators for more positive news to come on Friday.

Signs of life in housing and rising consumer spending in the U.S., along with the positive developments for the European debt crisis, are also helping boost market confidence in the economy.

Stocks rose around the world as optimism about the Greek debt deal took hold. In Europe, the FTSE 100 index of leading British stocks closed up 1 percent. Germany's DAX rose 2.4 percent and the CAC-40 in France gained 2.5 percent. The euro also rose against the dollar.

Even if some of Greece's private investors reject the bond swap deal, Brian Gendreau, market strategist for El Segundo, Calif.-based Cetera Financial Group, said the situation is clearly improving. "A year and a half ago, the idea that private bond holders would take a hit wasn't even on the table," he said.

While a major disruption is expected if Greece does default, Gendreau's sense is that the market response would not be as harsh as it might have been last year, when there were predictions the euro could collapse. He would expect a reaction that reflects more "fatigue and exasperation. But that's not the same as panic and crisis."

Among the stocks making big moves Tuesday:

— Coach Inc. jumped 5 percent after the luxury accessories maker said it is sticking to its long-term sales goals.

— McDonald's Corp. lost more than 3 percent after reporting slower growth in February.

— Simon Property Group Inc. fell about 2 percent after the largest mall operator in the U.S. announced two real estate deals that total $3.5 billion, including a $2 billion investment in Europe.

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