By Kate Gibson, MarketWatch
NEW YORK (MarketWatch) -- U.S. stocks gained Wednesday for a second straight day as Ford Motor Co. posted its best retail-sales month in seven years, while investors kept one eye trained on the debate over prospective U.S. military strikes against Syria.
"Everybody was so focused on political dysfunction with the coming debt-ceiling debate, and this latest international crisis has shown a very unusual bipartisanship coming out of Washington," said Ron Florance, Wells Fargo's deputy chief investment officer for investment strategy.
After an early 35-point retreat, the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJI) rose as much as 123 points and finished up 96.91 points, or 0.7%, at 14,930.87.
"The short-term volatility is all around how the world is going to respond to a humanitarian crisis," Florance added.
The Federal Reserve released its Beige Book survey of economic conditions, which found the U.S. economy grew at a modest to moderate pace in July and August and offered few new clues as to the timing and scale of the anticipated cutback in the Fed's $85 billion in monthly bond purchases.
The central bank's report confirmed it is "moving down the road of being able to pull their foot off the accelerator in the fourth quarter," said Florance.
"I wish they would start it sooner, rather than later. People will realize that going from $85 billion to $65 billion, or whatever number they pick, is not going to be a catastrophic event," said Florance.
Intel Corp. (INTC) set the pace as 26 of the Dow's 30 components rose. Leading blue-chip losses, Microsoft Corp. (MSFT) fell 2.2% after Morgan Stanley cut its rating on the software maker following its deal to acquire Nokia Corp.'s (NOK) devices business.
Benchmark indexes traveled to session highs as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel spoke at a House hearing on the White House request for congressional approval of a limited strike against the Syrian regime.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee in the afternoon approved a resolution supporting the use of U.S. military force in Syria.
The S&P 500 index (SPX) advanced 13.31 points, or 0.8%, to 1,653.08, with telecommunications and health care the best performers and utilities the sole decliner among its 10 major industries.
Shares of E-Trade Financial Corp. (ETFCD) rallied 8.1% after the company said regulators had approved its request to use capital from its bank subsidiary for wider corporate purposes.
Bolstering technology shares, Apple Inc. (AAPL) rose $10.11, or 2.1%, to $498.69 after Cantor Fitzgerald LP started coverage of its shares with a buy rating and a 12-month target of $777. Apple has scheduled a Sept. 10 event to display its new iPhone models and further stoked investor optimism by announcing a second event in Beijing a day later.
Shares of LinkedIn Corp. (LNKD) fell 2.9% after the professional-networking site said in a securities filing it would sell 4.17 million shares of its Class A stock, estimating it would reap $1 billion.
The Nasdaq Composite (RIXF) rose 36.43 points, or 1%, to 3,649.04.
The Nasdaq (NDAQ) experienced another glitch with its main data feed, which halted trading for roughly three hours almost two weeks ago. The exchange said the outage affected its ability to transmit quotes in stock symbols "PC" through "SPZ." The trouble has been resolved, and trading was not impacted, Nasdaq said.
Advancers pulled ahead of decliners by a more than 2-to-1 ratio on the New York Stock Exchange, where 728 million shares traded. Composite volume surpassed 3.2 billion.
Ford shares (F) rallied 3.5% after the vehicle manufacturer reported a spike in sales last month from a year earlier and hiked its production plan for the fourth quarter.
"Equity investors appear to be reacting to a positive outlook reflected by Ford's decision to boost output -- itself a sign that a Fed tapering would arrive as the economy is strengthening, not weakening," wrote Andrew Wilkinson, chief economic strategist at Miller Tabak & Co., referring to the consensus expectation that the Federal Reserve would begin scaling back its monetary stimulus later this month.
"People are catching up to the news that has been coming out around manufacturing here, and better consumption in the global marketplace that is supporting our economy, and Europe has turned," said Florance.
In a televised news conference with Sweden's prime minister, President Barack Obama continued to make his case for a military response to the alleged use of chemical weapons against civilians in Syria last month.
"We believe very strongly, with high confidence, that chemical weapons were used; we want to join with the international community for an effective response," Obama said. "Even Syria doesn't deny they were used; the only remaining dispute is who used them." Obama was in Stockholm, en route to a Group of 20 meeting in St. Petersburg, Russia, while his top national-security aides briefed lawmakers in public and private hearings on Capitol Hill.
The president also said the world should not find excuses not to act and that he believes a strong message can be sent to the Syrian regime.
"It was this reach-out in such terms that resulted in the drop in oil and gold," said Peter Boockvar, chief market strategist at the Lindsey Group LLC, in emailed comments.
On the New York Mercantile Exchange, both crude and gold futures fell, with oil (CLV3) down $1.31, or 1.2%, at $107.23 a barrel and gold (GCZ3) losing $22, or 1.6%, to $1,390 an ounce.
The U.S. dollar (DXY) edged lower against currency rivals including the euro (EURUSD). Longer-dated U.S. Treasury prices fell, with the yield on the 10-year note (10_YEAR) rising 5 basis points to 2.898%.
Ahead of Wednesday's Beige Book release, San Francisco Fed President John Williams had said the central bank should start curtailing stimulus later this year and stop it altogether by the middle of next year, so long as the labor market continues to improve and inflation rises toward 2%.
On Friday, the government releases U.S. payrolls data for August, with the monthly report coming a day after Automatic Data Processing Inc. releases hiring data for last month. The labor market is a concern of the Fed and would likely factor into any decisions made at the Federal Open Market Committee gathering later this month.
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