US STOCKS-Wall St rallies, S&P 500 briefly hits record

Fri Mar 21, 2014 10:44am EDT

* Indexes on track for strong weekly gains

* U.S. and Russia engage in tit-for-tat sanctions

* Nike falls after results, Tiffany rises

* Dow up 0.3 pct, S&P up 0.3 pct, Nasdaq down 0.5 pct (Updates to market open)

By Ryan Vlastelica

NEW YORK, March 21 (Reuters) - Wall Street's upward momentum continued on Friday, with major indexes largely rising and the S&P 500 briefly climbing to a new record as energy and industrial names outperformed.

Both the Dow and S&P 500 are on track for their fourth day of gains out of the past five, and all three major indexes are set to close out a week of strong gains.

Geopolitical issues remained in focus after President Vladimir Putin signed laws completing Russia's annexation of Crimea and investors took fright at a U.S. decision to slap sanctions on his inner circle. Russia's MICEX stock index fell about 3 percent but recovered some losses.

While some analysts say U.S. equities are vulnerable to any escalation in geopolitical tensions with Russia, stocks were boosted by Moscow's assertion that no other Ukrainian region would be subject to intervention.

"The path of least resistance for markets is up, and so far it doesn't think the Ukraine issue is too big of a negative since no one really thinks that Putin will do anything too drastic," said Michael Matousek, head trader at U.S. Global Investors Inc in San Antonio. "Of course if things do heat up, it would really become a headwind for markets."

Companies tied to the pace of economic growth were among the biggest gainers Friday, with energy and industrial shares rallying. Joy Global Inc jumped 3 percent to $56.79 while Halliburton Co was up 1.4 percent to $58.19.

On the downside, Nike Inc late Thursday said growing pressures from weak emerging market currencies would take a toll on its profit. The athletic apparel maker, which gets about 30 percent of revenue from emerging markets, also said China sales would be unchanged or slightly down this quarter. Shares fell 3 percent to $76.82.

The Dow Jones industrial average was up 46.21 points, or 0.28 percent, at 16,377.26. The Standard & Poor's 500 Index was up 5.21 points, or 0.28 percent, at 1,877.22. The Nasdaq Composite Index was down 20.27 points, or 0.47 percent, at 4,299.02.

The S&P 500 briefly climbed to a record high of 1,883.97, just barely over its previous record of 1,883.57. If the index's current levels hold, that would represent a record close. For the week, both the Dow and S&P are up 2 percent while the Nasdaq is up 1.4 percent.

Symantec Corp shares weighed on the Nasdaq, tumbling 13 percent to $18.16 a day after it fired Chief Executive Steve Bennett, the second time it has sacked its top executive in less than two years.

WellPoint Inc raised its earnings outlook, saying it expected strong membership growth. Shares rose 1.1 percent to $100.81.

Despite recent strength, volume has been anemic on positive market days, suggesting limited conviction behind the move. However, volume is expected to surge on Friday as options expire alongside multiple index rebalances. Credit Suisse estimates $14 billion in gross trading from the S&P 500 index rebalance, with another $6 billion from rebalancing in other indexes.

In earnings news, Tiffany & Co reported adjusted fourth-quarter earnings and gave a profit outlook that were below estimates. However, shares rose 2.3 percent to $93.23. Darden Restaurants Inc reported third-quarter results largely in line with expectations and affirmed its plan to divest its Red Lobster business. Shares rose 2.6 percent to $50.61.

Lin Media LLC jumped 21 percent to $25.98. Media General Inc agreed to buy the company for $1.6 billion. Media General jumped 6.1 percent to $18.39.

The U.S. Federal Reserve late Thursday said big U.S. banks have enough capital buffers to withstand a drastic economic downturn. The central bank said 29 out of 30 major banks met the minimum hurdle in its annual health check.

The only bank to fall under the 5 percent requirement for top-tier capital was Zion Bancorp, which said it would resubmit a capital plan to the Fed. Shares of Zion fell 2.4 percent to $32.20. (Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Nick Zieminski)

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