News from two big firms sends Wall Street higher

NEW YORK - Wall Street closed an erratic week with healthy gains yesterday as strong earnings from Microsoft Corp. and an optimistic outlook from Countrywide Financial Corp. outweighed investor concerns about the economy.

Housing-market news over the week was glum, and oil prices surged to settle at record highs. Although corporate earnings have been mixed, investors have been heartened by good news for individual companies.

Yesterday's report from Countrywide that it expects to return to profitability soon despite a big third-quarter loss gave investors hope that the problems in the housing market are contained and that U.S. consumers still have spending power.

Thursday night's strong report from Microsoft inspired robust buying throughout the technology sector.

"The market is higher for just two reasons: Countrywide and Microsoft," said Peter Boockvar, equity strategist at Miller Tabak & Co. L.L.C. "You take those two stocks out of the equation and there is no reason for the market to be higher. Microsoft single-handedly is driving the Nasdaq."

Mixed profit reports and data showing economic weakness have made investors uncertain whether the market is overvalued. However, earnings will be pushed aside next week as the main focus of investor attention. Taking its place will be the Federal Reserve's rate-setting meeting Tuesday and Wednesday.

The Dow Jones industrial average rose 134.78, or 0.99 percent, to 13,806.70.

Broader stock indicators also gained. The Standard & Poor's 500 index rose 20.88, or 1.38 percent, to 1,535.28, and the technology-dominated Nasdaq composite index advanced 53.33, or 1.94 percent, to 2,804.19.

For the week, the Dow rose 2.11 percent, the Nasdaq was up 2.90 percent, and the S&P 500 jumped 2.31 percent. All three indexes had posted losses in the previous week.

High oil prices didn't dampen investors' spirits, either. After spiking above $92 a barrel in Asian trading overnight, December crude futures rose $1.40 to settle yesterday at $91.86 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange.

"Because oil prices are so high, our nation's oil bill has gone up," said Tom McManus, investment strategist with Banc of America Securities. "We're exporting dollars to pay for oil, and our counterparties are reinvesting those dollars back in our markets - the so-called petrodollars finding their way back."

Even as stocks advanced, investors poured money into commodities markets as a hedge against a falling dollar, which hit another record low against the euro. Gold futures rose $16.50 to close at $787.50 an ounce, the highest price since January 1980. Energy, metals and agriculture futures all moved higher.

Treasury bonds turned lower as stocks barreled higher.

Yesterday's stock gains were fueled by company-specific news, according to Robert Pavlik, portfolio manager at Oaktree Asset Management.

"Trading today is sort of choppy, but stocks are moving up based on strong earnings from Microsoft," he said. "You're also getting a pop from Countrywide's strong guidance . . . ."

Countrywide posted a wide loss of more than $1 billion in the third quarter, but the mortgage lender, whose stock has plummeted due to rising subprime-mortgage defaults, said it would be profitable in the fourth quarter and next year. Its shares jumped $4.23, or 32.36 percent, to $17.30.

Microsoft reported that its profit jumped 23 percent, thanks to brisk sales of the new Halo 3 video game, Windows and Office. Microsoft shares rose $3.04, or 9.5 percent, to end at $35.03.

Financial stocks were solidly higher yesterday, but the sector continues to show signs of uneasiness after the summer's credit market problems.

The New York Times reported that, after Merrill Lynch & Co. Inc. posted a sharp third-quarter loss Wednesday, the investment bank's chairman and chief executive officer floated the idea of a merger with Wachovia Corp. Merrill shares rose $5.19, or 8.52 percent, to close at $66.09.

The Russell 2000 Index of smaller companies rose 15.28, or 1.90 percent, to 821.39.

Overseas stock markets advanced.

Japan's Nikkei stock average rose 1.36 percent, Hong Kong's Hang Seng index rose 1.84 percent, Britain's FTSE 100 rose 1.29 percent, Germany's DAX index rose 0.21 percent, and France's CAC-40 rose 0.60 percent.