Nasdaq briefly cracks 3,000; stocks dip on Fed outlook
The Nasdaq composite index briefly touched 3,000 on Wednesday for the first time since the collapse in dot-com stocks more than a decade ago. Stocks ended lower, but it was still the best February on Wall Street in 14 years.
The milestone for the Nasdaq, heavy with technology stocks, came a day after the Dow Jones industrial average closed above 13,000 for the first time since May 2008.
Apple, the Nasdaq's biggest component, topped $500 billion in market value, the only company above the half-trillion mark and only the sixth in U.S. corporate history to grow so big. Apple might reveal its next iPad model next week.
The Nasdaq last hit 3,000 on Dec. 13, 2000. Its last close above 3,000 was two days earlier. It was only above 3,000 for seconds on Wednesday before closing down 19.87 points at 2,966.89.
The Dow lost 53.05 to close at 12,952.07. The Standard & Poor's 500 index lost 6.50 points to close at 2,966.89.
For the month, the Dow gained 2.5 percent, the S&P 4.1 percent and the Nasdaq 5.4 percent. The last time the stock market had such a strong February was in 1998, when the S&P gained 7 percent.
Stocks opened higher after the government said that the economy grew faster at the end of last year than previously estimated a 3 percent annual rate, the best reading since the spring of 2010.
Stocks fell sharply after about an hour, then recovered by mid-afternoon, after the Federal Reserve's survey of regional economic conditions said the economy strengthened in the first six weeks of the year.
They turned negative after Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke testified on Capitol Hill that the economy has performed better than expected in recent months. He said gas prices will add to inflation and unemployment is falling faster than expected.
Bernanke's remarks made it appear less likely that the Fed will begin another round of bond-buying to juice the economy. Bond-buying increases the money supply and could add to inflation, so signs of inflation make it a less appetizing option. And unemployment must remain high for the Fed to justify such an aggressive policy.
U.S. Treasury debt plunged on speculation that the Fed wouldn't enter the market again. The yield on the 10-year Treasury note spiked to 2.02 percent during Bernanke's remarks, from 1.94 percent minutes earlier. It fell back to 1.97 percent. Bond yields rise as their prices fall.
Materials and energy companies had the steepest losses of the S&P 500's 10 industry groups. Consumer products and financial companies rose modestly.
The price of gold plunged $77 per ounce, the biggest one-day drop since September, as traders dialed back their expectations that the dollar would be weakened by another round of economic stimulus from the Fed. Gold settled at $1,711.30 an ounce , its lowest close since Jan. 25. Silver also fell sharply.
The Nasdaq has gained 14.5 percent this year, compared with 6.4 percent for the Dow and 9.1 percent for the S&P 500. The Nasdaq already has risen almost as much this year as it did in all of 2010. It edged lower in 2011.
The strength of tech stocks is no surprise when you consider the licking they took during last year's market gyrations. Tech stocks tend to be more risky and rise faster as investors regain confidence in the economy.
The Nasdaq also is benefiting from long-term economic currents that could carry tech stocks even higher. Many companies put off replacing worn-out technology during the recession and now are investing again.
There's also a growing global market for technology, and big tech companies face less competition these days when they try to acquire smaller ones. Established companies like IBM and Oracle can be picky about buying only companies that will increase their earnings.
The gains have some analysts on the lookout for another tech bubble, like the one that yanked the Nasdaq from 5,132 in February 2000 down to 1,792 in October 2001.
"It's justifiable to worry about exuberance," said Sam Stovall, chief equity strategist at S&P Capital IQ. But he said he expects the broad market to rise another 3 to 10 percent in the next few months before hitting a ceiling and correcting downward.
"It's momentum, combined with too many investors on the sidelines," Stovall said. "As the market blows past these benchmarks, these investors selectively throw in the towel" and buy stocks whose prices are rising.
In corporate news:
• DreamWorks Animation SKG Inc. plunged 12.2 percent after the maker of "Kung Fu Panda" said its fourth-quarter profit fell 71 percent on weak DVD sales.
• News Corp. rose 0.3 percent after James Murdoch stepped down as executive chairman of News International, the British newspaper arm at the center of a phone-hacking scandal. James is the youngest son of 80-year-old CEO Rupert Murdoch.
• Staples Inc. dropped 8.4 percent after the office supply retailer said international sales weakened in the fourth quarter. The company's outlook for 2012 was far weaker than analysts had expected.