US STOCKS-Wall St rises, biotech stocks snap losing streak

Tue Mar 25, 2014 10:43am EDT

* Biotech shares rise, rebounding after recent losses

* Consumer confidence hits six-year high in March

* Walgreen, McCormick shares rally after results

* Indexes up: Dow 0.6 pct, S&P 0.5 pct, Nasdaq 0.7 pct (Updates to open, adds analyst comment and data)

By Ryan Vlastelica

NEW YORK, March 25 (Reuters) - U.S. stocks rose on Tuesday as many of the market's biggest trading favorites regained their momentum and a strong read on consumer confidence boosted optimism about economic conditions.

Consumer confidence rose more than expected in March, climbing to its highest level since January 2008. The report was the latest in a string of positive reads on the economy that supported theories that softness early this year was related to bad weather and not weakening fundamentals.

Investors continued to watch global issues cautiously. On Monday, major indexes fell on concerns that the crisis in Ukraine could escalate, pushing traders to take profits in such high-flying sectors as biotech and Internet shares. Those names rebounded on Tuesday, with some of Monday's biggest decliners topping the list of advancing S&P 500 names.

Biotech shares snapped a four-day losing streak to rise 1.7 percent. Alexion Pharma rose 2.4 percent to $153.29, while Regeneron Pharma was up 2 percent at $312.41. Among Internet names, which have also been hit by accusations that they are overpriced, Facebook Inc added 2.1 percent to $64.97.

The rebound in some so-called "momentum" names was an indication that while concerns persist about geopolitical tensions in Ukraine and slowing growth in China, investors are not so bearish on equities as to sell them wholesale. The CBOE Volatility Index, a gauge of investor anxiety, fell 5.6 percent and remains at historically low levels.

"Investors become momentarily concerned about valuation, but that pullback was healthy, and we could see modest gains from here just because equities remain the most attractive place to be," said Kristina Hooper, head of portfolio strategies at Allianz Global Investors in New York, which has $475 billion in assets under management.

"Biotechs continue to look attractive since they offer a higher level of growth, and in face they look more attractive than they did because valuations improved in the selloff."

McCormick & Co and Walgreen Co were the S&P 500's two biggest gainers after reporting quarterly results. Both posted sales increases, but Walgreen said a slowdown in the introduction of higher-profit generic medicines cut into its gross profit margin.

McCormick rose 5.7 percent to $71.43 while Walgreen added 4.5 percent to $67.24.

The Dow Jones industrial average was up 94.93 points, or 0.58 percent, at 16,371.62. The Standard & Poor's 500 Index was up 9.83 points, or 0.53 percent, at 1,867.27. The Nasdaq Composite Index was up 31.33 points, or 0.74 percent, at 4,257.71.

The conflict over Ukraine continued with leaders of the Group of Seven nations warning Russia it faced further sanctions if Russian President Vladimir Putin took further action to destabilize Ukraine following the seizure of Crimea.

While few U.S. companies have direct exposure to the region, market participants are concerned about the fallout from any escalation in what is already the biggest confrontation between the United States and Russia since the Cold War.

Investors also continued to look to China, with expectations growing that the government would intervene to support its economy following a series of economic reports that imply the weakest growth in China since the global financial crisis.

In the latest on the housing market, U.S. single-family home prices rose slightly more than expected in January, according to the S&P/Case-Shiller composite index of 20 metropolitan areas, while new home sales fell more than expected in February.

In company news, Walt Disney Co agreed to buy Maker Studios, one of YouTube's largest networks, for $500 million, though the price tag could rise to $950 million if the company hits certain performance milestones. Shares of the Dow component dipped 0.3 percent to $79.25.

Shares of Carnival Corp slumped 3.4 percent to $38.65 as the S&P 500's biggest decliner after the cruise operator warned that it might post a loss in its current quarter. (Editing by Nick Zieminski)

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