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Stocks move higher on home building, low inflation

Christina Rexrode, AP Business Writer

In this Monday, June 10, 2013 photo, trader Edward Landi check a screen in a booth on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. Global stock markets traded fitfully Tuesday June 18, 2013 as investors watched for signs of a possible change in U.S. stimulus efforts by the Federal Reserve. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

NEW YORK (AP) -- It's all about the Fed. Still.

U.S. stocks moved higher Tuesday, helped by news of a pickup in home building and low inflation. But the Federal Reserve loomed large, with investors trying to guess what the central bank will say Wednesday about how long it plans to keep stimulus programs in place. For many, Tuesday was just a holding pattern as they waited for Wednesday's announcement.

The market gains were steady for most of the day. The Standard & Poor's 500 index was up 11 points, or 0.7 percent, at 1,650 at mid-afternoon. All 10 industry sectors rose, led by telecommunications.

The vibe on Tuesday came from a familiar template. The Federal Reserve has had an outsized effect on the stock market in recent weeks, with the major indexes getting yanked back and forth as investors guess how long the Fed will keep supporting the U.S. economy. Some investors say it's troubling that the market is relying more on the central bank for direction than economic fundamentals. Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke startled markets when he said May 22 that the central bank could pull back on one of those programs, in which the Fed buys bonds to keep interest rates low and drive investors into the stock market.

"Here we are again," said Gregg Fisher, founder and chief investment officer of Gerstein Fisher in New York. "We don't know what the actions will be. We're all trying to figure that out."

Analysts predicted that Bernanke would use his Wednesday news conference to cast a reassuring tone and make it clear that the Fed won't pull back on any of its programs until it's sure the economy can handle it. He's also likely to drop more hints about when the Fed could start trimming its stimulus programs. Some said that recent market volatility hasn't been caused by fear that the Fed will pull back on its stimulus programs — most everyone expects that to happen eventually. It's that investors don't want to be surprised when it does.

Brian Doe, wealth adviser at Gratus Capital in Atlanta, described the Fed's policy announcements as "the big wind" that could push the market around.

"Right now the wind is not blowing," Doe said. "We have this little calm where everybody can be optimistic."

The pace of new home building increased in May, helped by more buyers coming to the market and a scarcity of houses for sale. Investors described the report as good enough to send the market up, but not good enough to force the Fed to have to immediately slash its stimulus efforts.

U.S. consumer prices also last month, but only slightly. That's also likely to influence the Fed's decision. The Fed knows that its stimulus programs can lead to inflation. If inflation is in check, that gives the Fed more leeway to continue the programs.

Stocks were up throughout most of Europe, despite reminders that the economy there is still far from healed. European car sales hit their lowest level for the month of May in 20 years. In Greece, bickering continued over the prime minister's decision last week to shut down state TV in an effort to save money.

In other U.S. stock trading, the Dow Jones industrial average was up 152 points, or 1 percent, to 15,335. The Nasdaq composite index rose 31 points, or 0.9 percent, to 3,483.

The Russell 2000, an index of small-company stocks, rose 13 points, or 1.4 percent, to 1,001. The index hasn't closed above 1,000 before.

Among stocks making big moves:

—Hormel Foods, the maker of Spam and Skippy peanut butter, slipped after the company said it expects lower profits for the year. The stock fell $1.73, or 4.2 percent, to $38.92.

—Jack in the Box was up after announcing it will close about 20 percent of the Qdoba Mexican Grill restaurants that it owns. Jack in the Box rose $1.40, or 3.8 percent, to $38.39.

—Signet Jewelers, which runs the Kay Jewelers and Jared brands, rose after announcing that it plans to buy back up to $350 million of its own stock. Signet rose $1.43, or 2.1 percent, to $69.40.

—Newfield Exploration was up after a Stifel Nicolaus analyst boosted the stock to "Buy" from "Hold." Shares of the oil and natural gas company rose 79 cents, or 3.4 percent, to $23.80.

—Sprint and Dish Network were both up after Sprint sued Dish Network to try to stop its purchase of wireless data network provider Clearwire. Sprint Nextel was up 10 cents, or 1.4 percent, to $7.32. Dish Network was up 48 cents, or 1.2 percent, to $39.31.