Mergers drive US despite light volume

MERGER activity drove the Dow and S&P to two-and-a-half-year highs yesterday in the latest in a series of mileposts that point to more gains ahead.

Buying accelerated after the S&P 500 broke through the 1,313 mark, taking the index further into levels that prevailed before the financial crisis. More than two stocks rose for every one that fell on both the New York Stock Exchange and Nasdaq, but the day's rise came on lighter-than-average volume.

Diversified industrial company Danaher agreed to buy medical diagnostics company Beckman Coulter for about $6.8bn. Oil driller Ensco said it would buy Pride International for about $7.3bn.

“The size of these deals is an indication that the buyers feel comfortable putting that cash to work while the companies being bought are undervalued,” said James Dunigan, chief investment officer at PNC Wealth Management in Philadelphia, which oversees $105bn.

“The level of the broader market is reasonable, but there are these individual situations that deserve a higher premium than the market is getting over all.”

Danaher rose 2.2 per cent to $49.03 while Beckman Coulter gained 10 per cent to $82.65. Ensco fell 4.2 per cent to $52.13 while Pride International rose 15.7 per cent to $39.80.

With the 1,313 level breached, stocks face little by way of technical resistance until the 1,400 level on the S&P.

The Dow Jones industrial average was up 69.48 points, or 0.57 per cent, at 12,161.63. The Standard & Poor’s 500 Index was up 8.18 points, or 0.62 per cent, at 1,319.05. The Nasdaq Composite Index was up 14.69 points, or 0.53 per cent, at 2,783.99.

The S&P is up 4.9 per cent so far in 2011, adding to the gains it notched mostly in the latter half of 2010. The size and swiftness of the advance has prompted many analysts to call for a correction, though none has materialized.

UBS raised its 2011 target for the S&P 500 index by 7.5 per cent to 1,425 from 1,325, citing an improving outlook for the economy and earnings.

AOL has agreed to buy The Huffington Post for $315m. The stock fell 3.4 per cent to $21.19.

Loews reported a better-than-expected 16 per cent jump in profit, sending shares of the conglomerate up 4.5 per cent to $43.27.

Volume was light, with about 6.89 billion shares traded on the New York Stock Exchange, the American Stock Exchange and Nasdaq, well below last year’s daily average of 8.47bn.