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Stocks reach highest level since August

Specialist Christopher Culhane, left, works on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange Monday, Oct. 24, 2011. Specialist Christopher Culhane, left, works on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange Monday, Oct. 24, 2011. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)
By Stan Choe and David K. Randall
AP Business Writers / October 24, 2011

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NEW YORK—Stock indexes closed Monday at the highest point since the U.S. debt limit showdown in August. The market was driven higher by a round of big corporate takeovers and reports that Europe's bailout fund will be larger than originally thought. The Nasdaq composite turned positive for the year.

Netflix Inc. plunged 26 percent in after-hours trading after the DVD-by-mail and video streaming company forecast a sharp drop in fourth-quarter profits.

Investors are still waiting for a resolution to Europe's debt problems. European leaders said they made progress at a weekend summit and plan to unveil concrete plans for containing the crisis by Wednesday.

The Dow Jones industrial average was up about 40 points in the first hour of trading but moved steadily higher through midday following reports that Europe's takeover fund will be greatly expanded. It finished with a gain of 104.83 points, or 0.9 percent, at 11,913.62.

"The market is expecting that there will be some kind of deal worked out Wednesday," when European financial ministers are scheduled to meet, said Uri Landesman, president of Platinum Partners. "If there's not a deal by then, the market is going down significantly."

Even with concerns about Europe, U.S. companies are still reporting bigger profits. "Although there is a good deal of economic and political uncertainty in the world, we are not seeing it much in our business at this point," Caterpillar Chief Executive Doug Oberhelman said.

The maker of construction equipment reported a 44 percent surge in income, more than Wall Street analysts were expecting, thanks to strong growth in exports. The company said it expected the global economy to continue recovering, albeit slowly. Caterpillar jumped 5 percent, the most of the 30 companies in the Dow.

The Standard & Poor's 500 index rose to 1,254.19. That is just 3.45 points, or 0.3 percent, below where it started the year. It's the highest close for the S&P 500 since Aug. 3, just as Washington was resolving a showdown over raising the country's borrowing limit. If the S&P 500 finishes the year with a gain, it will be its biggest turnaround since 1984.

The Nasdaq composite rose 61.98, or 2.3 percent, to 2,699.44. The gains turned the Nasdaq positive for the year. The S&P 500 is the only major market index that remains lower than where it started the year.

The Russell 2000 index of small companies rose 3.3 percent as investors moved money into higher-risk assets.

Netflix sank 26.4 percent post-market trading after forecasting fourth-quarter income that was far below what analysts were expecting. Through Monday's close the stock had plunged 59 percent since July 12, when it raised prices and announced a plan to break its DVD-by-mail business into a separate company. The company abandoned the plan after it triggered a revolt among subscribers.

Other major U.S. companies due to report earnings this week include UPS Inc., Ford Motor Co. and Procter & Gamble.

Analysts expect companies in the S&P 500 to report earnings growth of 14 percent for the third quarter, according to data provider FactSet. They expect a 10 percent gain in revenue.

Expenses are also expected to climb. Higher costs for raw materials helped drag down income 8 percent at Kimberly-Clark Corp., which reported results Monday. The stock fell 5 percent. The company is a major consumer products maker whose brands include Huggies and Kleenex.

Higher costs also hurt cigarette maker Lorillard, which reported a 3 percent drop in income. Lorillard's stock fell 0.6 percent.

A series of corporate deals helped lift the market, said Phil Orlando, chief equity strategist at Federated Investors. "This is telling us that companies think stocks are cheap, and they're willing to spend some of the cash that's sitting around on their balance sheets," he said.

Deals announced included:

-- HealthSpring Inc. jumped 34 percent after Cigna Corp. said it will buy the health insurer for about $3.8 billion in cash. Cigna rose 1.4 percent.

-- RightNow Technologies Inc. gained 19 percent after Oracle Corp. said it will buy the tech service company for about $1.5 billion. Oracle rose 2.3 percent.

-- Mattel Inc. rose 2 percent after it agreed to buy Hit Entertainment, the owner of the Thomas & Friends and Barney brands, for $680 million in cash.

-- The J.M. Smucker Co. added 0.7 percent after it bought most of Sara Lee Corp.'s North American foodservice coffee operations for about $350 million.

Five shares rose for every one that fell on the New York Stock Exchange. Volume was average at 4.2 billion shares.