Dow sets record-high close; Fed signals gradual rate hikes

NEW YORK (Reuters) - The Dow rose to a record high close while U.S. stocks kept their upward momentum Wednesday following Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen’s congressional testimony to gradually raise interest rates.

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Yellen’s speech was a nod to Wall Street as the Fed signaled it will gradually tighten policy and gradually unwind its massive balance sheet. A neutral interest rate level refers to one that neither encourages nor discourages economic activity.

Investors cheered Yellen’s dovish tone, alleviating some concerns over the recent dip in inflation.

“People were worried about her coming out more hawkish. She said exactly what the market expected and that’s why the market was happy with it,” said Chris Zaccarelli, chief investment officer at Cornerstone Financial Partners, based near Charlotte, North Carolina.

The rate-sensitive S&P 500 real estate index .SPLRCR was among the strongest in the benchmark index, posting a 1.3 percent gain, its biggest one-day percentage gain in about four months. Technology shares also rose sharply, with the tech index .SPLRCT also up 1.3 percent.

The dovish sentiment from the Fed at the same time put the S&P 500 financials .SPSY, which tend to benefit from higher rates, last among sectors, ending with just a gain of 0.1 percent.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average .DJI rose 123.07 points, or 0.57 percent, to close at 21,532.14, a record high. The Dow also hit an intraday record.

The S&P 500 .SPX gained 17.72 points, or 0.73 percent, to 2,443.25 and the Nasdaq Composite .IXIC added 67.87 points, or 1.10 percent, to 6,261.17.

An index of airline stocks .XAL was up 2.3 percent after the No. 1 U.S. airline, American Airlines Group Inc AAL.O, reported quarterly results that beat expectations and its shares rose 4.2 percent.

Delta Air Lines Inc DAL.N, United Continental Holdings Inc UAL.N, Alaska Air Group Inc ALK.N, Spirit Airlines Inc SAVE.O and JetBlue Airways Corp JBLU.O stocks also gained at least 1 percent each.

Delta Air Lines is due to report results Thursday. On Friday, reports from three of the biggest U.S. banks - JPMorgan Chase JPM.N, Wells Fargo WFC.N and Citigroup C.N - are expected.

Stocks held their gains after the Fed’s latest Beige Book report showed that the U.S. economy grew at a “slight to moderate” pace over the last several weeks across all regions.

Advancing issues outnumbered declining ones on the NYSE by a 3.52-to-1 ratio; on Nasdaq, a 2.23-to-1 ratio favored advancers.

The S&P 500 posted 27 new 52-week highs and 11 new lows; the Nasdaq Composite recorded 81 new highs and 69 new lows.

About 6.1 billion shares changed hands on U.S. exchanges. That compares with the 6.9 billion daily average for the past 20 trading days, according to Thomson Reuters data.

(This version of the story corrects paragraph 4 to say North, not South Carolina)

Reporting by Kimberly Chin; Additional reporting by Sweta Singh and Tanya Agrawal in Bengaluru; Editing by Leslie Adler and James Dalgleish