Stocks rise, heading for best February in 14 years

The Nasdaq composite index cracked 3,000 on Wednesday for the first time since December 2000 as the stock market headed for its best February finish in 14 years.

The milestone for the technology-heavy Nasdaq index came a day after the Dow Jones industrial average closed above 13,000 on Tuesday for the first time since May 2008, four months before the financial crisis.

Apple’s market value topped $500 billion, a level that few companies have reached and even fewer have maintained. The personal electronics company recently surpassed Exxon Mobil Corp. to become the world’s most valuable company by market value.

The Standard & Poor’s 500 index is up 4.9 percent this month. It hasn’t gained that much in a February since 1998.

Stocks rose early Wednesday on news that the economy grew faster at the end of last year than previously estimated. The government said the economy grew at a 3 percent annual rate, the best reading since the spring of 2010.

The Dow was up 24 points, or 0.2 percent, at 13,029 in the first 45 minutes of trading. The S&P 500 rose 3, or 0.2 percent, at 1,375. The Nasdaq gained 7, or 0.2 percent, at 2,993.

Tech stocks have been outperforming the broader market because companies are increasingly reliant on new tools to improve their productivity and remain competitive. Tech shares also tend to rise and fall more quickly as traders adjust the levels of risk in their portfolios.

The Nasdaq is up more than 15 percent this year, just less than its gain for all of 2010. The index edged lower in 2011.

The Dow’s final push above the 13,000 milestone came from a report that Americans feel better about the economy than they have in a year.

Other economic data Tuesday were more grim: Orders for big-ticket factory goods dropped by the most in three years, mainly because the government withdrew a key tax subsidy. And home prices are stuck at 2002 levels.

The Dow last closed above 13,000 on May 19, 2008, almost four months before the fall of the Lehman Brothers investment bank triggered the worst of the financial crisis.

The next big test comes March 9, when the government releases the number of jobs added by the country in February and updates the unemployment rate.

Tuesday’s gain put the Dow 1,160 points below its all-time high of 14,164.53, set Oct. 9, 2007. The Great Recession began two months later.

The Dow started with its best January since 1997 and has added to that gain. The index is up 6.5 percent for the year. Other averages have fared even better: The Standard & Poor’s 500 is up 9.5 percent and the Russell 2000 index of smaller stocks is up 12 percent.

In corporate news, Dreamworks Animation SKG Inc. plunged 8 percent after the maker of Kung Fu Panda said its fourth-quarter profit fell 71 percent on weak DVD sales.