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Jump in consumer confidence gives boost to stocks

Traders work on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange Tuesday.

Traders work on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange Tuesday.

NEW YORK – Investors set aside some of their worries about the economy Tuesday after a closely watched measure of consumer confidence soared in April.

Stocks fluctuated in a narrow range as concerns about the spread of swine flu and the viability of banks were eased by a Conference Board report that its Consumer Confidence Index surged 12 points to 39.2 from a revised 26.9 in March.

The reading is the highest since November and far better than the 29.5 number that economists had expected. The report suggests consumers might be willing to spend more if confidence continues to build.

In midday trading, the Dow Jones industrial average fell 18.08, or 0.2 percent, to 8,006.92 after being down as much as 86 ahead of the report.

Broader stock indicators were mixed. The Standard & Poor’s 500 index fell 2.43, or 0.3 percent, to 855.08, and the Nasdaq composite index rose 0.88, or 0.1 percent, to 1,680.29.

Todd Leone, managing director of equity trading at Cowen & Co., said investors have been growing more upbeat about prospects for the economy. That optimism followed a string of better-than-expected readings and has driven a market rally since early March.

“People aren’t as afraid as they have been. We’re definitely seeing more money come back into the market,” he said.

That optimism took a hit ahead of the confidence reading as investors worried that a growth in swine flu cases could hurt industries such as travel and tourism. The World Health Organization raised its alert to Phase 4 out of 6, saying the flu spreads easily but is not a pandemic.

Banking troubles came back into the spotlight after The Wall Street Journal reported that regulators told Bank of America Corp. and Citigroup Inc. that they may need to raise more capital.

Government officials briefed the 19 biggest U.S. banks last week about “stress tests” they have conducted on them, but the results aren’t expected to be made public until early May.

Bank of America fell 59 cents, or 6.6 percent, to $8.33, while Citigroup fell 17 cents, or 5.5 percent, to $2.90.

But the report on consumer confidence bolstered hopes that consumers not unemployed or struggling with debt might begin to step up their spending.

Some stocks that depend on consumer spending rose. Starbucks Corp. rose 47 cents, or 3.6 percent, to $13.67, while Coca-Cola Co. slipped 2 cents to $42.22.

IBM Corp. rose $1.43, or 1.4 percent, to $101.38 after the company boosted its quarterly dividend 5 cents to 55 cents. The company also said its board has authorized another $3 billion for repurchasing stock. The move brings the total available for buying up shares to $6.7 billion.

In other economic data, the S&P/Case-Shiller index of home prices in 20 major cities showed a 18.6 percent drop in February. That was smaller than in January and in line with analysts’ expectations.

Housing stocks were mixed. Hovnanian Enterprises rose 25 cents, or 9.3 percent, to $2.94, while KBR Inc. fell 28 cents, or 1.8 percent, to $15.72.

Later Tuesday, the Federal Reserve will begin its two-day meeting on interest rates. The Fed has already lowered its target rate to a range of zero to 0.25 percent and started buying Treasurys in an effort to keep market rates low. Investors are curious about the central bank’s assessment of the economy, and whether it will accelerate its purchases of government bonds.

The swine flu gave investors reason to cash in recent gains Monday, sending stocks moderately lower. The Dow remains up 22.6 percent, though, from the nearly 12-year low it reached in early March.

In other trading Tuesday, the Russell 2000 index of smaller companies rose 3.31, or 0.7 percent, to 472.84.

U.S. government bond prices fell, pushing the yield on the 10-year Treasury note up to 2.94 percent from 2.91 percent.

The dollar was mostly higher against other major currencies. Gold prices fell.

Light, sweet crude fell 82 cents to $49.32 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange.

Advancing stocks narrowly outpaced those that fell on the New York Stock Exchange, where volume came to 496.5 million shares.

Overseas, Japan’s Nikkei stock average fell 2.7 percent. In afternoon trading in Europe, Britain’s FTSE 100 fell 1.7 percent, Germany’s DAX index fell 1.5 percent and France’s CAC-40 fell 1.7 percent.

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