By Kristina Peterson
The materials sector led U.S. stocks higher Wednesday as better-than-expected reports on private-sector jobs and the services sector in the U.S. provided a boost, while new budget-stabilizing plans from Greece weighed on the U.S. dollar.
The Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJI) was up 22 points, or 0.2%, at 10,427, making its year-to-date performance nearly unchanged. The index on Tuesday crossed into positive territory for the year for the first time since January, but wasn't able to hold it into the close.
Headlining Wednesday's economic news, payroll giant Automatic Data Processing reported a fewer-than-expected private-sector job losses.
Also boosting sentiment, the Institute for Supply Management said U.S. non-manufacturing sector expanded at a faster-than-expected pace in February, although employment within the broad sector was still contracting.
"It does look like we're at a modest growth," said Ben Halliburton, chief investment officer at Tradition Capital Management, though he was disappointed with the employment portion of ISM's report. "It's hard to have a self-sustaining recovery when employment's very difficult."
The Nasdaq Composite (RIXF) rose 0.2%. The Standard & Poor's 500-stock (SPX) index advanced 0.3%, led by its materials sector.
The health-care sector was the S&P 500's only category in the red, declining ahead of remarks President Barack Obama was set to make laying out his strategy for bringing the long-running debate over health care to a conclusion.
"Anything that increases the odds that a deal could be struck, which is what Obama's proposals do, is going to hurt the health-care stocks," said Jim McDonald, chief investment strategist at Northern Trust Global Investments. "They're facing a headwind now with the re-focus on getting a bill passed through."
Supporting commodities stocks, the dollar fell against the euro after the Greek government announced a new austerity plan Wednesday totaling 4.8 billion ($6.53 billion) to ensure it can meet its deficit-cutting pledge this year, including steep cuts in civil service salaries and entitlements. Greece will also raise its sales tax by two percentage points.
Crude-oil prices climbed above $80 a barrel and gold futures rose . Treasurys declined, with the 10-year note off 6/32 to yield 3.631%.
Industrial giant Caterpillar Inc. (CAT) rose 1.7%, helping the Dow climb, as the economically sensitive company was boosted by the latest round of improving data points. General Electric Co. (GE) rose 1.5%, boosted by the signs of economic growth, along with materials components Alcoa Inc. (AA) and DuPont (DD). Alcoa rose 1.7% and DuPont climbed 1.1%.
The Dow was also bolstered by its financial components as Fitch Ratings said U.S. credit card delinquencies declined in the January collection period, though charge-offs spiked.
Drug maker Pfizer (PFE) was the Dow's worst component. The stock shed 1.6% after Medivation said its experimental Alzheimer's disease treatment Dimebon, which was in development with Pfizer, failed to show effectiveness in a large late-stage study. The news sent shares of Medivation (MDVN) -- which has no products on the market and isn't a Dow component -- plunging 67% on heavy volume.
Novell (NOVL) shares surged 27% to $6.01, topping an offer price announced late Tuesday from hedge fund Elliott Associates and sparking speculation another software company or hedge fund could step in with a higher bid.