Dow within 100 of 13,000 as stocks barrel higher

NEW YORK (AP) ? The stock market built a big rally on the strength of the American job market Thursday and barreled toward its highest levels of the year. The Dow Jones industrial average pushed to within 100 points of 13,000.

The Dow was up 120 points at 12,900 just after 3 p.m. EST. The Dow has not closed above 13,000 since May 19, 2008, and has not traded above that level at any point since the following day.

General Motors was among the best-performing stocks of the day. Two years after it was almost wiped out, the company turned a record $7.6 billion profit last year, bigger even than when Americans couldn’t stop buying trucks and SUVs.

The rally was broad, with all but a handful of the 30 stocks in the Dow higher for the day. Microsoft rose almost 5 percent, and Bank of America, which tends to swing wildly with the market, 4 percent.

The Standard & Poor’s 500 rose 14 points to 1,357, and the Nasdaq composite was up almost 40 points at 2,955. All 10 industry groups in the S&P were comfortably higher, led by materials stocks, including strong showings from DuPont and Dow Chemical.

Good news about the job market overshadowed continuing uncertainty about the Greek debt crisis.

The Labor Department said weekly applications for unemployment benefits dropped for the fourth time in five weeks to the lowest point since March 2008. That was when the jobless rate was just 5.1 percent, far below the current rate of 8.3 percent.

Construction of single-family homes cooled slightly in January, but a rise in permits suggested builders were growing more confident that more buyers are ready to come off the sidelines.

The market has seemed determined to move higher this year, despite mostly incremental and vague news about the Greek debt crisis and sometimes-conflicting reports on the U.S. economy.

“I think we’re floating on air. There’s not much going on,” said Ben Schwartz, chief market strategist at Lightspeed Financial.

He warned that there could be volatility ahead for the market. The Dow has yet to suffer a 100-point loss this year, a sharp contrast to the triple-digit swings that were common last summer.

“With all the uncertainty in the world, it’s a crazy environment,” he said. “This market is going to whip around. It’ going to be very volatile through spring, so you have to be prepared for moves like this.”

The stronger reading on the job market led traders to sell Treasury bonds, a sign that they’re more comfortable plowing money into riskier assets like stocks. That pushed bond prices lower and yields higher. The yield on the 10-year Treasury note was sharply higher, at 1.99 percent from 1.93 percent Wednesday.

Investors have shaken off fears about Europe and last summer’s concerns about the U.S. economy and driven stocks steadily higher this year.

John Burke, president of Burke Financial Strategies in New Jersey, thinks some of the calm has been caused by the Federal Reserve flooding the market with cheap money. The Fed has promised to keep interest rates near zero for the next several years.

Burke warned that the low rates could allow the U.S. to put off reducing its budget deficit.

“They’re pushing the problem off,” Burke said. “We’re fine today, we’ll avoid (another) recession, but what’s that going to do to us when the term is up?”

European markets didn’t fare as well. Stock indexes in Britain, Germany and Spain slid, though the ATHEX index in Greece climbed 1.1 percent.

The Greek crisis plodded along for another day without clarity. Greece is negotiating for breaks on its bonds and for an international bailout aimed at preventing a bankruptcy next month.

Portugal, another troubled country that uses the euro, reported 14 percent unemployment, the highest on record ? a reminder that the European crisis is not confined to Greece.

The euro rose slightly to $1.31, a sign of improving confidence in Europe. The euro had been rising steadily since mid-January but stalled late last week around $1.33.

Besides Europe, gas prices could be a threat for the U.S. economy, particularly as Iran threatens to cut exports. The average price for a gallon of gasoline is $3.52, the highest on record this time of year, and could climb to $4.25 a gallon by late April.

Among other stocks making big moves:

? J.M. Smucker plummeted 9 percent after the company missed analysts’ estimates for net income and revenue. The company said its sales volume fell 10 percent because it raised prices for Jif peanut butter, Folgers coffee and Crisco.

?Molson Coors rose 4 percent after the beer maker beat analysts’ expectations, helped by higher sales of Modelo beer in Japan and Coors Light in Latin America and China.