(USA TODAY) NEW YORK -- Stocks rose Thursday, pushing the Standard & Poor's 500 index to a record high close.
Gains were fueled by comments from Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen and encouraging results from several retailers.
According to preliminary calculations, the S&P 500 rose 9.13 points, or 0.5%, to close at 1,854.29, topping its Jan. 15 all-time closing high of 1,848.38. The S&P has now wiped out its losses for the year and is up 0.3%.
The Dow Jones industrial average gained 74.30 points, or 0.5%, to 16,272.71. The Dow is still down 1.8% for the year.
The Nasdaq composite added 26.87 points, or 0.6%, to 4,318.93. The Nasdaq is the best-performer of the year, up 3.4%.
In the question-and-answer session, Fed chairwoman Janet Yellen acknowledged that economic data, ranging from job growth to retail sales and housing, has come in softer over the past six weeks.
Yellen, just as other economists have been arguing, said "it's clear" some of the economic softness can be attributed to severe winter weather. But she stressed the Fed would need more time to evaluate how much of the weakness is due solely to stormy weather.
"It's clear unseasonably cold weather has played a role," Yellen told the Senate Banking Committee. "We need to get a firm handle on how much of the soft data can be attributed to weather." But she added that the Fed "will be attentive" to other economic signposts to see if the economy "is progressing in line with our expectations."
When asked if the central bank might consider a pause in its current timetable to pull back on stimulus, Yellen reiterated that the Fed's "tapering" of its bond-buying program is "not on a pre-set course." She added that if the economic outlook declined or changed "significantly," the Fed would reconsider its timetable, but stressed that it is way too early to make that call.
Wall Street likely viewed the chairwoman's words as market-friendly.
Ahead of the chairwoman's testimony, traders said they would be listening for clues as to whether the recent economic weakness may alter the Fed's current "taper" timetable, which the central bank has said will be done at a measured pace and likely be concluded by the end of the year.
The latest round of Fed-speak coincides with the broad U.S. stock market again flirting with all-time highs. In the past three sessions, the S&P 500 has climbed above its Jan. 15 all-time closing high of 1848.38 in intra-day trading, but has not been able to hold those gains and record a fresh all-time closing high.
The 1850 level on the benchmark U.S. stock index is acting like a "ceiling" on stock prices at the moment, as investors find it difficult to make investment decisions given the distorted economic data caused by the violent winter weather.
"Every rally this week has been unsustainable," says Bryan Sapp, senior trading analyst at Schaeffer's Investment Research. "The recent range in the market has very likely frustrated both bulls and bears, as there has been no directional lean and very choppy intra-day action."
Investors were also digesting fresh economic news, which came in mixed.
Durable goods orders in January fell 1%, a tad better than the dip of 1.7% economists expected.
First-time jobless claims rose 14,000 last week to 348,000, which was above the 335,000 Wall Street anticipated.
In Asia, Japan's Nikkei 225 stock index edged 0.3% lower to 14,923.11.
European stocks ended mixed. Investors there were rattled by reports that armed guards stormed government offices in Crimea, a region of Ukraine that is considered pro-Russia.
Oil prices edged lower, with benchmark U.S. crude for April delivery down 16 cents to $102.43 in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange. The contract gained 76 cents to settle Wednesday at $102.59.
On Wednesday, the Dow rose 18 points, or 0.1%, to 16,198.41. The S&P 500 added just 0.04 point to close at 1,845.16. The Nasdaq composite gained 4.48 points, or 0.1%, to 4,292.06.
Yellen, the new head of the Fed, testifies in front of the Senate's Banking Committee. This testimony was originally slated for Feb. 13 but was postponed due to a snow storm. Yellen's Feb. 11 testimony to the House Financial Services Committee was well-received by Wall Street. In that testimony, Yellen reiterated that Fed policy will remain supportive of financial markets, as it was under ex-Fed chief Ben Bernanke.
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