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Earnings, Fed give stocks another lift

NEW YORK - Stocks rose for a second day in a row Wednesday, helped by surprisingly strong earnings from aluminum giant Alcoa (AA). The market extended its earlier gains throughout the afternoon after the Federal Reserve released minutes from its policy meeting last month. The minutes showed that central bank officials wanted to be absolutely certain the economy had recovered before starting to raise interest rates.

FINAL SCORE: The Standard & Poor's 500 index rose 20 points, or 1.1 percent, to close at 1,872. The Dow Jones industrial average rose 181 points, or 1.1 percent, closing at 16,437. The Nasdaq composite rose 70 points, or 1.7 percent, to end at 4,183.

ECONOMY WATCH: At their March policy meeting, Federal Reserve policymakers debated over when the bank should start raising interest rates. Traditionally the Fed's main policy tool for regulating the U.S. economy, short-term interest rates have been near zero since 2008 in an effort to encourage borrowing and economic growth. Now that the economy has mostly recovered from the recession, an increasing number of policymakers believe it's time for the Fed to start raising interest rates starting next year.

Fed officials also said they believed any recent economic slowness was likely due to the unusually harsh winter weather this year, and would be temporary.

A IS FOR: Alcoa rose 47 cents, or 3.75 percent, to $13, after the company's first-quarter earnings came in well ahead of analysts' forecasts. The aluminum maker is typically the first large U.S. corporation to report its results every quarter.

MATERIAL WORLD: Alcoa's results helped push other mining and materials stocks higher. U.S. Steel (X) rose 2.7 percent; industrial parts company W.W. Grainger (GWW) climbed 2 percent; auto parts company Delphi (DLPH) increased 3.3 percent.

EARNINGS WORRIES: Investors expect that corporate earnings for the first three months of the year will be held back by the severe winter weather that plagued most of the country. Earnings are expected to fall 1.6 percent from a year earlier, according to financial data provider FactSet. If that forecast proves correct, it would be the first time corporate profits have fallen since the third quarter of 2012.

THE QUOTE: "We're going to see lousy results, but I think we'll still see optimistic forecasts from companies," said Jack Ablin, chief investment officer with BMO Private Bank in Chicago. "Companies lost a lot of business in the first couple months of the year, but most of that business, I suspect, will come back."

DOCTOR IN THE HOUSE? Intuitive Surgical (ISRG), the maker of robotic surgical equipment, slumped $33.95, or nearly 7 percent, to $455.89. It warned that first-quarter sales would be drastically lower than previously expected. Intuitive Surgical, like many other biotechnology stocks, has endured some steep drops recently. It traded as high as $541.23 last Thursday.

HOTEL VACANCY: La Quinta Holdings (LQ), the parent company of the hotel chain La Quinta Inns, rose 12 cents, or 0.7 percent, to $17.12 on its first day of trading. La Quinta is owned by the private equity firm Blackstone Group and was taken public this week in a $650 million IPO.

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