* Dow and S&P 500 climb to record highs, banks rally
* Nasdaq ends at highest level in 12-1/2 years
* Bank of America helps lead Dow higher
* Dow up 0.8 pct, S&P 500 up 1 pct, Nasdaq up 0.7 pct
By Leah Schnurr
NEW YORK, May 14 U.S. stocks rallied to fresh highs on Tuesday as investors picked up large-cap companies' shares on the expectation that central bank stimulus will help propel the rally further.
Gains were broad, but growth sectors outperformed their peers with bank stocks leading the way. Bank of America, up 2.8 percent at $13.34, was the Dow's biggest percentage gainer, while Citigroup Inc rose 2.4 percent to $50.09.
Wall Street has rallied without a significant correction since the start of the year, pushing major indexes to all-time records and pushing the S&P 500 up almost 16 percent for 2013 so far.
The ascent has been driven in large part by the Federal Reserve's easy monetary policy, designed to stimulate the economy, though investors' focus has turned to when the Fed may start to rein in its bond-purchase program.
"The developed economies of the world are all easing aggressively, the money is looking for a home, and it's ending up in the stock markets," said Bucky Hellwig, senior vice president at BB&T Wealth Management in Birmingham, Alabama.
For now, investors are betting that the central bank will be careful not to remove its support too soon in order to not disrupt the economic recovery it is trying to foster, Hellwig said.
So far, declines in the market have been met with buying and investors are trying to gauge how long that can last.
"People are indeed trying to participate in the rally, but at the same time, they're trying to be cautious," said Brad McMillan, chief investment officer of Commonwealth Financial, based in Waltham, Massachusetts.
The S&P 500 financial sector index rose 1.7 percent, while the S&P transports group index gained 1.4 pct.
The Dow Jones industrial average gained 123.57 points, or 0.82 percent, to a record 15,215.25 at the close. The Standard & Poor's 500 Index rose 16.57 points, or 1.01 percent, to end at a record 1,650.34. The Nasdaq Composite Index climbed 23.82 points, or 0.69 percent, to 3,462.61, its highest close since November 2000.
During the session, the Dow hit an all-time intraday high of 15,219.55, while the S&P 500 climbed to an all-time intraday high of 1,651.10.
The Nasdaq touched a fresh 52-week high of 3,468.67.
The market had traded sideways for the past three sessions, showing a gain of just 0.07 percent as the winding down of the quarterly earnings season and a light economic calendar have left investors without a strong catalyst for further gains.
The Dow's gains were limited by weakness in Intel Corp , down 1 percent at $23.84, and UnitedHealth Group , off 1.1 percent at $61.73.
U.S.-listed shares of Sony Corp jumped 9.9 percent to $20.76 after billionaire hedge fund investor Daniel Loeb called on the company to spin off its lucrative entertainment arm.
Nokia Corp unveiled a new version of its Lumia smartphone line, but U.S.-listed shares fell 5.2 percent to $3.64. Research company Gartner said Nokia lost 5 percentage points of market share in the first quarter, falling to 14.8 percent.
Solar power companies' shares fell after Trina Solar Ltd estimated lower panel shipments than a previous outlook and said its results would be hurt by a foreign currency exchange loss. The stock fell 8.8 percent to $5.41, while Yingli Green Energy slid 6.3 percent to $2.36.
Most corporate earnings have been better than expected this quarter. With 90 percent of the S&P 500 companies having reported results so far, 67.2 percent have topped earnings expectations, according to Thomson Reuters data, which is even with the average over the past four quarters. However, only 46.9 percent have beaten revenue expectations, below the 52 percent average over the past four quarters.