NEW YORK (AP) — Some soothing words from Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke pushed the stock market slightly higher on Wednesday. Earnings gains for several major companies also helped.
Bernanke said that the U.S. central bank had no firm timetable for cutting back on its bond purchases. The Fed would consider reducing its stimulus program if the economy improves, but Bernanke emphasized in his testimony to Congress that the reductions were “by no means on a preset course.”
The central bank is currently buying $85 billion of bonds a month to keep interest rates low and encourage borrowing. Concerns that the Fed was poised to start easing back on that stimulus before the economy had recovered sufficiently caused the stock market to pull back in June.
“The market is responding well,” to Bernanke’s comments, said Phil Orlando, chief market strategist at Federated Investors. The concern has been that “the Fed was going to dial the (stimulus) down to zero regardless how the economy was doing.”
The Standard & Poor’s 500 index climbed five points, or 0.3 percent, to 1,682. The Nasdaq composite rose 10 points, or 0.3 percent, to 3,608.
The Dow Jones industrial average was little changed at 15,460. The index was held back by American Express. The credit card company’s stock slumped $1.88, or 2.4 percent, to $76.40 after European regulators proposed to cap the lucrative processing fees the card company imposes.
Bernanke’s comments had a bigger impact on the Treasury market.
The yield on the 10-year Treasury note fell after Bernanke’s comments as investors bought U.S. government bonds. The yield fell to 2.48 percent from 2.53 percent on Tuesday. The yield has been gradually declining since July 5, when it surged to 2.74 percent after the government reported that hiring was strong in June.
If Treasury yields rise too fast, it worries stock investors because of the impact that rising interest rates have on the wider economy. Higher mortgage rates, which are linked to Treasury yields, would slow demand for homes.
Homebuilder stocks climbed Wednesday as the yield on Treasury notes fell. The group had started the trading day lower after a government report showed that U.S. builders started work on fewer homes in June. Construction fell to an annual rate of 836,000 homes, the Commerce Department said Wednesday, 10 percent below May’s total of 928,000.
PulteGroup rose 14 cents, or 0.7 percent, to $19.42. D.R. Horton gained 30 cents, or 1.4 percent, to $22.
The stock market has climbed back to record levels in July following its brief slump in June, when the S&P 500 logged its first monthly decline since October on concern that the Federal Reserve would ease back on its economic stimulus too quickly. The S&P 500 has gained 4.7 percent in July after falling 1.5 percent in June.
The index is up 17.9 percent this year, and could head higher still as the economy improves in the second half of the year, says Rob Lutts, chief investment officer at Cabot Money Management.
“Expect better things,” said Lutts. “The market’s going to churn its way higher from here.”
Investors are also keeping an eye on company earnings during one of the busiest weeks for second-quarter profit reports.
Bank of New York Mellon gained 65 cents, or 2.1 percent, to $31, after the bank posted earnings that beat analysts’ expectations. The bank’s net income surged in the second quarter as market conditions improved and it collected more fees for managing investments. Bank of America rose 44 cents, or 3.2 percent, to $14.37 after it too reported surging earnings for the period, helped by cost-cutting and investment banking gains.
Banks and financial companies are expected to report the strongest earnings growth of all S&P 500 companies, according to data from S&P Capital IQ. The growth for the sector is expected to reach almost 20 percent, according to the data provider. That compares to the average growth of 3.4 percent forecast for all companies.
In commodities trading, the price of crude oil rose 48 cents to $106.48 a barrel. Gold fell $12.90, or 1 percent, to $1,277.50 an ounce.
The dollar rose against the euro and the Japanese yen.
Among other stocks making big moves Wednesday:
— Yahoo rose $2.51, or 9 percent, to $29.38 after the company reassured investors that it would keep buying back its own stock. The internet company had already spent $3.6 billion buying back about 190 million of its shares since last year.
— Mattel fell $3.16, or 6.8 percent, to $43.17 after its second-quarter net income fell 24 percent, hurt by weak sales in North America and continued softness in Barbie sales, as well as an asset impairment charge.
— St. Jude Medical surged $3.27, or 6.7 percent, to $51.73 after the medical device maker reported better-than-expected second-quarter earnings on higher sales of its heart-shocking implants.