Stocks closed higher Friday after a quiet, pre-holiday session that turned the S&P 500 index positive for the year.
Traders were relieved by news that Congress extended a payroll tax holiday for workers and emergency unemployment benefits. Both programs were set to expire at the end of the year. Letting that happen would have reduced economic growth by about 1 percent, analysts said.
The final business day before Christmas also was the slowest full day of trading so far this year. Traders exchanged just 2.22 billion shares, about half of the recent average. The market will be closed on Monday because Christmas falls on a Sunday this year.
Stocks have risen steadily since Tuesday on hopeful signs about the pace of economic growth in the fourth quarter, which ends next week. New claims for unemployment benefits fell last week to the lowest level since April 2008, long before anyone realized the nation was in a recession.
A series of mixed economic reports Friday did little to derail that optimism. The Standard & Poor’s 500 index added 11.33 points, or 0.9 percent, to 1,265.33. It started the year at 1,257.64.
Bank of America Corp. was the Dow’s biggest gainer, adding 2.4 percent. All but two of the 30 Dow stocks rose, Alcoa Inc. and Boeing Co.
Stocks might surge into the new year if the S&P 500 passes a couple of key technical thresholds, said Todd Salamone, research director at Schaeffer’s Investment Research.
Fund managers currently hold relatively few stocks, Salamone noted, and many of their funds have underperformed the market and are negative for the year. If the index rises farther above its break-even point for the year or its average over the past several months, fund managers might flood into the market in a last-ditch attempt to improve their annual returns, he said.
“The worst thing that can happen for a fund manager is to underperform and be in the red when your benchmark, the S&P index, is in the green” for the year, Salamone said.