NEW YORK — Wall Street stormed higher Tuesday as investors, optimistic following stronger-than-expected earnings from two big investment banks, were also galvanized by the Federal Reserve's decision to cut interest rates by three-quarters of a percentage point. The Dow Jones industrial average soared 420 points, its biggest one-day point gain in more than five years.
Many investors were expecting the Fed to cut rates a full point, but appeared to overcome their early disappointment, especially since a 0.75 point cut is still substantial. The central bank's benchmark fed funds rate is now at 2.25 percent _ its lowest level since December 2004, and less than half what it was last summer. The Fed began lowering rates exactly six months ago, after the credit markets seized up due to soaring defaults in subprime mortgages.
In its statement accompanying the rate decision, the Fed said "recent information indicates that the outlook for economic activity has weakened further," but also that "uncertainty about the inflation outlook has increased."
"The Fed once again in the statement showed that it is ready for further action if this were needed," said Christian Menegatti, lead analyst for online economic research firm RGE Monitor. "It also showed the fact that it's still paying attention to inflation ... but that it is far from being the primary concern right now. And the market knows that, and it is happy."
Quarterly results from Lehman Brothers Inc. and Goldman Sachs Group Inc. early Tuesday gave great comfort to a market fearful about investment banks weakening further _ and hurting the rest of the economy _ due to losing bets on mortgage-backed securities. After Sunday's news that the stricken Bear Stearns Cos. was being bought by JPMorgan Chase & Co. at a bargain price of $2 a share, both Lehman and Goldman posted quarterly profits early Tuesday that were significantly lower than they were a year ago, but higher than analysts predicted.
"The overwhelming news this morning was the Lehman and Goldman Sachs earnings," said Jim Herrick, director of equity trading at Baird & Co. "The earnings this morning allayed investors' fears that there's going to be a hard collapse."
Still, while Wall Street's advance was heartening, investors were well aware that over the past six months, stocks have had many bursts higher, only to give them back at the first sign of credit market or economic trouble.
It will take some time before anyone knows whether the market is back on a true upward track, or is just staging another bear market rally. As market watchers will recall, the Dow jumped 416 points just last Wednesday after a $200 billion loan pledge from the Fed. A great deal of those gains evaporated late last week on worries about Bear Stearns.
After the Fed's decision was announced, the Dow first gave back half of its 300-point gain, then shot higher, closing up 420.41, or 3.51 percent, at 12,392.66. The Dow's point gain was the largest point jump for the Dow since a 447-point advance on July 29, 2002, when Wall Street was also struggling with a protracted decline.
Broader stock indicators also finished sharply higher. The Standard & Poor's 500 index rose 54.14, or 4.24 percent, at 1,330.74, and the Nasdaq composite index rose 91.25, or 4.19 percent, to 2,268.26, the steepest percentage gain for the tech-heavy index in five years.
Bond prices fell. The yield on the benchmark 10-year Treasury note, which moves opposite its price, rose to 3.50 percent from 3.30 percent late Friday.
It was a good sign that short-dated Treasury prices rose while long-dated bonds fell, said Michael Materasso, senior vice president at Franklin Templeton. "What you're seeing is an unwinding of this flight-to-quality that we saw last week," he said, adding that the Fed's cut and statement indicated that it is willing to act further, but "not panicking."
After its last scheduled meeting Jan. 30, the Fed reduced rates by a half-point, pointing to not only stressed financial markets, but also tightening credit for businesses and households; a deepening in the housing contraction; and softening in the labor markets. The central bank repeated these concerns in its statement Tuesday.
Data released Tuesday supported the notion that the economy is sliding while costs are rising. The Commerce Department said home construction fell in February: housing starts fell 0.6 percent, while building permits plummeted 7.8 percent.
Meanwhile, the Labor Department reported a 0.3 percent rise in its Producer Price Index for February, in line with estimates, but the core PPI, which strips out food and energy prices, rose by a greater-than-expected 0.5 percent.
Although the market was clearly upbeat on Tuesday, many on Wall Street have been unsure recently that rate cuts will give the markets and the economy the lift they need; rate cuts usually spur growth, but they also drive down the dollar, which in turn lifts commodities prices. It's likely that the uncertainty will lead to some more pullbacks until investors have a sense that the economy is indeed recovering.
Wall Street certainly remains nervous about the effect of inflation on cash-strapped homeowners. Still, the Fed's language about inflation Tuesday could be oddly comforting to investors, who may be relieved that policymakers weren't so preoccupied with troubles in the credit market as to set aside inflationary concerns.
"They're saying, 'You're healthy enough for me to talk about inflation,' " said Swiss Re senior economist Arun Raha.
Following the Fed's move, the dollar regained ground against some major currencies, while gold prices fell and crude oil surged $3.74 to settle at $109.42 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange.
Advancing issues outnumbered decliners by about 9 to 1 on the New York Stock Exchange, where consolidated volume came to 5.38 billion shares, compared with 5.69 billion shares traded Monday.
The Russell 2000 index of smaller companies rose 31.45, or 4.83 percent, to 681.93.
Financial stocks were the biggest winners Tuesday. Lehman rose $14.74, or 46 percent, to $46.49; Goldman rose $24.57, or 16 percent, to $175.59; and Bear Stearns rose $1.10, or nearly 23 percent, to $5.91.
Stock markets overseas, which closed before the Fed decision, rebounded Tuesday from sharp drops a day earlier. Japan's Nikkei stock average bounced 1.50 percent, while Hong Kong's Hang Seng index rose 1.42 percent. Britain's FTSE 100 rose 3.54 percent, Germany's DAX index added 3.41 percent, and France's CAC-40 increased 3.42 percent.
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