U.S. Stocks Rise Ahead Of Bush Plan For Subprime Borrowers

NEW YORK (MarketWatch) -- U.S. stocks stepped higher on Thursday, with the troubled financial sector leading the advance, as Wall Street awaited the White House's plan to curb home foreclosures amid some downward pressure from mixed retail-sales results.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average rose 51.5 points at 13,496.4, with 17 of its 30 components trading higher, led by a 3.6% rise by American Insurance Group Inc. shares.

Broader indexes gained as well, with the S&P 500 up 5.86 points at 1,490.87 and the Nasdaq Composite rising 13.87 points to 2,680.23.

Shares of Countrywide Financial Corp. were up 10%, with the mortgage lender leading gains in the financial sector amid expectations of a federal plan to help subprime borrowers. .

President Bush is expected at 1:40 p.m. Eastern to detail his administration's plan, with input from mortgage lenders and banks, to freeze interest rates for as long as five years to help some subprime borrowers.

Illustrating those housing woes, the Mortgage Bankers Association on Thursday reported foreclosures hitting new highs in the third quarter, with the rate of loans in the foreclosure process at 1.69% of all outstanding, up from 1.4% in the second quarter. .

Volume on the New York Stock Exchange passed 492 million, and advancing stocks outnumbering those declining more than 2 to 1. On the Nasdaq, 772 million shares traded hands, and advancers outpaced decliners nearly 2 to 1.

On the New York Mercantile Exchange, gold futures reversed earlier sharp losses to trade higher, recently up $4.8 to $808.5 an ounce, while crude-oil futures gained 93 cents to $88.42 a barrel.

Sales target

Target Corp. shares dropped 6% after the retailer said it expects December sales to be down "well short" of its prior view. In November, Target had predicted same-store sales would be down in the low single digits.

The retailer also reported that November same-store sales increased 10.8%, while on a calendar-adjusted basis, sales for the period increased 1.1%.

November same-store sales were mixed during a month of heavy promotions.

Wal-Mart Stores , Macy's and Costco Wholesale beat expectations, while Fred's cut its earnings outlook and Limited Brands sales fell more than forecast.

Jobless claims

Earlier, the government said its four-week moving average for jobless claims climbed to a level unseen in more than two years, with the underlying trend "consistent with the recent softening in the labor market," said Omair Sharif, an analyst at RBS Greenwich Capital.

The Labor Department reported its moving average for initial jobless claims hit its highest mark since late October 2005, with the seasonally adjusted four-week moving average for initial jobless claims up 4,750 to 340,250. .

On Friday, the government is slated to release its employment report.

"We expect nonfarm payrolls tomorrow to show a gain of 90,000, with an uptick in the unemployment rate to 4.8%," Sharif said in his commentary.

Elsewhere, the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development said the U.S. will avoid a recession next year, though the housing problems will lead to a downturn.

The Bank of England joined the Bank of Canada in making an interest-rate cut this week. The European Central Bank held steady and kept rates at 4%.

"This is the first time in two years they have cut and is further evidence that the credit crisis is global," Kevin Giddis, an analyst at Morgan Keegan & Co. Inc., said of the BOE's move.

Overseas, European shares fell back as investors factored in the rate cut, although a strong update from the royal Bank of Scotland lifted banking stocks. .

The dollar was mixed, gaining on the yen but erasing gains against the euro and pound. .

By Kate Gibson