Slight improvements in Europe's troubled debt markets and China's economy were enough to lift stocks on Tuesday. The Dow Jones industrial average rose as many as 151 points in the morning before fading to a 60-point gain at the close.
Debt auctions by Spain, Greece and Europe's bailout fund drew solid interest from investors, easing fears that recent credit-rating downgrades would prevent them from obtaining funds. The downgrades had threatened to increase borrowing costs and intensify the region's debt crisis.
The Chinese government said earlier that its economy slowed less dramatically in the fourth quarter than analysts had expected.
There's so much money sitting in short-term accounts and earning zero return that even a shred of good news can jolt the market higher, said David Kelly, chief market strategist with J.P. Morgan Funds.
"The stock market is cheap, but cash and Treasurys are extremely expensive," Kelly said. "That's why even though people are busy taking money out of stocks and putting it into bond funds, they really should be doing the opposite."
The Dow rose 60.01 points, or 0.5 percent, to close at 12,482.07. It was the Dow's highest close since July 26, before the European debt crisis set off months of wrenching volatility. The Dow is up 264 points in the first 10 days of the year, the best start to a year since 2003.
The Standard & Poor's 500 index gained 4.58 points, or 0.4 percent, to 1,293.67. The S&P 500 had risen earlier to 1,303.02; it hasn't traded above 1,300 since Aug. 1.
The Nasdaq composite index added 17.41 points, or 0.6 percent, to 2,728.08.
The market was closed Monday for the Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday.
Bank stocks were uneven after a mixed batch of earnings reports. Wells Fargo & Co. rose 0.7 percent after strength in its lending business helped it beat Wall Street's fourth-quarter earnings estimates. Citigroup Inc. fell 8.2 percent and M&T Bank Corp. fell 1.6 percent after their earnings fell short of estimates.
Carnival Corp. plunged 13.7 percent after a cruise ship owned by one of its brands capsized off the coast of Italy, killing 11 passengers. Italian prosecutors are charging the captain with manslaughter, causing a shipwreck and abandoning his ship before all passengers were evacuated.
Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. Co. fell 6.2 percent as analysts predicted ripple effects through the industry.
Overseas markets rose earlier Tuesday after Spain auctioned off billions in short-term debt at sharply lower interest rates, indicating strong demand for the nation's bonds. Spain's borrowing costs had spiked in recent weeks on fears it would be engulfed by the crisis and default on its debts.
Standard & Poor's downgraded Spain's credit rating on Friday. The strong auction suggested that investors took the downgrade in stride.
Greece also auctioned off short-term debt on Tuesday at a lower rate than it had been paying. The fund to bail out Greece and other troubled nations also raised money, despite a downgrade on Monday.
The bailout fund's credit rating is based on the ratings of the nations that contribute to it. It was downgraded because S&P had cut ratings for most of the nations that use the euro and back the fund.
Earlier, the Chinese government said its economic growth slowed to 8.9 percent in the fourth quarter. That was the lowest in two and a half years, but still better than the 8.7 percent predicted by analysts.
Chinese growth must stay strong to keep the global economy moving as Europe tips toward recession, said Brian Levitt, an economist with Oppenheimer Funds.
"Many emerging markets are more linked via exports to the Chinese market than to the European economy, so China becomes sort of the lynchpin economic activity across much of the world," he said.
Asian and European markets closed higher. France's CAC 40 rose 1.4 percent, Germany's DAX added 1.8 percent.
Among the other U.S. companies making big moves Tuesday:
— Lions Gate Entertainment Corp. rose 4 percent after it agreed Friday to buy Summit Entertainment, owner of the blockbuster "Twilight" franchise, for $412.5 million in cash and stock.
— R. R. Donnelley & Sons Co. lost 15.8 percent, the most in the S&P 500, after the printing company said its 2011 profit margin will be narrower than it had forecast earlier.
Follow Daniel Wagner at www.twitter.com/wagnerreports.