Wall St gains ahead of Fed

Stocks post modest gains, nudging S&P towards fresh record, investors digest data, earnings ahead of Fed meeting.

United States stocks were slightly higher as investors shook off mixed economic data and disappointing results from blue-chip drug maker Merck to put the S&P 500 index in position for another record high.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average nudged up 21 points, or 0.1%, to 15,591 points, after slipping into negative territory for most of the morning session.

The S&P 500 index gained three points, or 0.2%, to 1,763 points.

The Nasdaq Composite was nearly unchanged at 3,943 points.

On Friday, the S&P 500 rose 0.4% to close at a record high for a fifth time in seven sessions, while the Nasdaq Composite closed at a 13-year high.

"The path of least resistance is higher," said Randy Billhardt, head of capital markets at investment bank MLV & Co. "The bad news is shrugged off, and the good news is being embraced."

Dow component Merck dropped after it reported adjusted third-quarter earnings above analysts' estimates, but revenue that fell a bit shy. Sales of Januvia, a diabetes drug, declined.

Separately, Apple edged up. The technology giant is slated to report fiscal fourth-quarter results after the close. The stock has gained 6% in the two weeks leading up to the results.

"Earnings for the most part have been well received," Mr Billhardt said.

"The market as a whole has held onto some pretty significant gains for the year, which in itself is a pretty significant achievement."

The S&P 500 has gained more than 6% since the unofficial kickoff of earnings reporting season after the Oct. 8 close, and is now up 23% so far this year.

With about half the S&P 500 companies reporting results through Friday, 75% have beat earnings estimates while 52% have topped revenue forecasts, according to FactSet. The year-over-year earnings growth rate for the third quarter is 2.3%, FactSet said.

"It's all about corporate earnings right now. Earnings are looking strong," said Doug Cote, chief market strategist at ING US Investment Management.

"US corporations have proved that despite all the uncertainties ... they can still put up record profits."

Industrial production for September rose 0.6% on the month, exceeding expectations of 0.4% growth. Capacity utilization rose to 78.3%, the highest rate since July 2008 and above forecasts of 78%.

Meanwhile, pending home sales for September fell 5.6% to the lowest levels seen since December, and missing expectations of a 0.5% increase.

The yield on the 10-year Treasury inched up to 2.512%, from 2.503% late Friday.

Investors will also be looking ahead to a statement from the Federal Reserve on Wednesday, following the conclusion of a two-day meeting of the central bank's policy-setting committee. The Fed is widely expected to keep stimulus measures, including the $US85 billion-a-month bond-purchasing program, intact.

Mr Cote said although the Fed's accommodative policy has helped support the market, he believes the overall trend higher will continue to be driven by improving fundamentals. "We're in a bull market, based on sound fundamentals," Mr Cote said. "As long as the earnings come in as they have been, you want to buy into volatility."

December crude-oil futures rose 0.4% to $98.26 a barrel, erasing early losses, while November gold futures advanced 0.1% to $1,353.60 an ounce.

Currency markets were largely quiet, with the dollar gaining slightly against the euro and the yen.

European markets closed mostly lower. The Stoxx Europe 600 slipped 0.2% after being up as much as 0.3% earlier in the session. Germany's DAX 30 index fell 0.1%, France's CAC 40 index lost 0.5% and the UK's FTSE 100 index inched up less than 0.1%.

Asian markets moved broadly higher, rebounding from recent weakness. Japan's Nikkei Stock Average jumped 2.2%, China's Shanghai Composite added less than 0.1%, and Australia's S&P ASX 200 climbed 1% to a five-year high.

In other corporate news, Consol Energy gained after the company agreed to sell five Appalachian coal mines to privately held Murray Energy in a deal valued at $3.5 billion.

Biogen Idec rose after the biotechnology company reported better-than-expected third-quarter adjusted earnings and revenue, helped by strong sales of its multiple sclerosis treatments, and lifted its full-year outlook.

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