Stocks rose modestly in choppy trading on Wednesday, putting the S&P 500 on track to snap a three-day losing streak, despite a rare earnings disappointment from Apple, the most valuable U.S. company.
Cat rallied sharply in the morning after the company noted an improvement in U.S. home sales, an assertion belied by a weak report on U.S. home sales from the Commerce Department.
"The comments in Caterpillar's earnings report was that they we're seeing a recovery in housing and then to get some news after that it was maybe not, that maybe took some of the CAT inflation away," said Janna Sampson, co-chief investment officer at OakBrook Investments LLC in Lisle, Illinois.
Housing stocks ranked among the worst performers after the biggest drop in U.S. single-family home sales in more than a year. The PHLX housing sector index <.HGX> tumbled 2.1 percent, pulled lower by a 2.6 percent drop in D.R. Horton shares to $18.19.
The S&P 500 is testing support at its 50-day moving average at 1,332.85. The benchmark index broke through that level on Tuesday, but rebounded above it after reports the Fed was likely to provide more stimulus.
Both the Dow and the S&P 500 had received a lift at the start of Wednesday's session from a report in The Wall Street Journal on Tuesday afternoon that Federal Reserve officials are moving closer to taking more steps to aid the flagging economy.
Expectations that the Fed will act, maybe as soon as its rate-setting meeting next week, have been growing. Tuesday's story, while nothing new, helped cement that view.
The Dow Jones industrial average <.DJI> gained 94.49 points, or 0.75 percent, to 12,711.81. The Standard & Poor's 500 Index <.SPX> rose 3.46 points, or 0.26 percent, to 1,341.77. The Nasdaq Composite Index <.IXIC> added 2.34 points, or 0.08 percent, to 2,865.33.
Caterpillar's quarterly profit easily beat Wall Street's expectations, helped in part by growing sales of mining equipment. The world's largest maker of construction machines also raised its 2012 forecast.
Boeing also helped the Dow, reporting a greater-than-expected increase in second-quarter profit and raising its full-year earnings forecast on Wednesday as rising airplane deliveries offset higher pension costs. Boeing's stock gained 2.7 percent to $73.99.
Ford Motor Co . reported a better-than-expected second-quarter profit on Wednesday, but roughly doubled its forecast for losses in Europe, where a deepening economic crisis pushed the auto industry's sales to their lowest level in nearly 20 years. Ford shares slid 0.9 percent to $8.98.
Of the 195 companies in the S&P 500 that have reported earnings to date for the second quarter, 64.6 percent have reported earnings above analysts' expectations.
Wall Street had sold off for three straight days on fears that Spain may need a bailout and signs that the global economy is starting to slow down. Despite the pessimism, the S&P 500 is up 6.8 percent this year, and is one of the best-performing broad stock indexes in the world.
(Reporting by Anna Louie Sussman; Editing by Jan Paschal, Dave Zimmerman)