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It came and went in a flash each time, a number on a board for mere seconds, but its symbolic power couldn't be dismissed.
The Dow Jones industrial average, powered higher all year by optimism that the economic recovery is finally for real, crossed 13,000 on Tuesday for the first time since May 2008.
The last time the Dow was there, unemployment was 5.4 percent, and Lehman Brothers was a solvent investment bank. Financial crises happened in other countries, or the history books.
The milestone Tuesday came about two hours into the trading day. The Dow was above 13,000 for about 30 seconds, and for slightly longer at about noon and 1:30 p.m., but couldn't hold its gains. It finished up 15.82 points at 12,965.69.
Still, Wall Street took note of the marker.
It was just last summer that the Dow unburdened itself of 2,000 points in three terrifying weeks. Standard & Poor's downgraded the United States' credit rating, Washington was fighting over the federal borrowing limit, and the European debt crisis was raging.
A second recession in the United States was a real fear. But the economy grew faster every quarter last year, and gains in the job market have been impressive, including 243,000 jobs added in January alone.
"Essentially over the last couple of months you've taken the two biggest fears off the table, that Europe is going to melt down and that we're going to have another recession here," said Scott Brown, chief economist for Raymond James.
The tumult of last summer and fall left the Dow as low as 10,655. It closed Tuesday 22 percent above that low. The Dow is 1,199 points from an all-time high, a 9 percent rally from here.
A long-awaited bailout to help Greece prevent a potentially catastrophic default, announced before dawn in Europe after 12 hours of talks, helped the Dow clear 13,000.
Greece will get (euro) 130 billion, or about $172 billion, from other European nations and the International Monetary Fund. In a separate deal, investors in Greek bonds will be asked to forgive (euro) 107 billion in debt.
After months in which talks crawled along and vague headlines yanked the market up and down, the conclusion was almost anticlimactic because the markets were already expecting an agreement.
European markets didn't take the news as well. Stocks closed down 3.5 percent in Greece, where stocks have lost 80 percent of their value since 2007. Stocks declined less than 1 percent Tuesday in Germany, France and Britain.
Investors noted that Greece remains in a deep recession. Its bond investors will take a 53.5 percent loss on the face value of their bonds, which could discourage future investment.
In the U.S., investors were cheered early by earnings from Home Depot, watched closely as a barometer of American spending on homes, and Macy's. Wal-Mart missed Wall Street expectations, and its stock lost 4 percent, worst among the 30 stocks in the Dow.
The index has climbed steadily this year. It has gained 6 percent and has not lost 100 points on any day. The Greek debt crisis may be receding, but high gasoline prices are emerging as a threat to the economic recovery, and thus the stock market.
A gallon of regular gas costs $3.57 on average, the highest on record for this time of year. With tension building over Iran's nuclear ambitions, Iran has halted oil exports to Britain and France and threatened to stop shipping to other European countries.
The price of oil settled at $106.25, up $2.65 for the day and its highest level since last May. The price jumped more than $1 in about 20 minutes after Iran's foreign ministry spokesman told reporters that a U.N. team visiting Iran has no plans to inspect the country's nuclear facilities and will only hold talks with Iranian officials.
"That was the olive branch the market was holding onto," said Phil Flynn, an analyst for the brokerage PFGBest. "If they're not going to discuss the nuclear program, then we're a lot closer to a conflict than further away," he said.
Airline stocks got clobbered. United Continental lost 9 percent, Delta Air Lines 7 percent. The Dow transportation average lost 1.5 percent.
Materials, telecommunications and energy companies led the industries gaining ground. Health care companies, makers of consumer staples and utilities, traditionally stocks to own in more cautious times, were lower.
The Standard & Poor's 500 index surpassed 1,363, its peak from April 2011, during the day but closed at 1,362.21, up 0.98 point. The Nasdaq composite, which is heavy with technology stocks and trading at levels not seen since December 2000, closed down 3.21 points at 2,948.57.
Metals prices jumped because of expectations that demand may improve after the Greek bailout package was approved and China took another step to stimulate economic growth. Silver finished up 3.7 percent, and platinum, copper and palladium all rose 3 percent or more. Gold ended up 1.9 percent.
The Dow last closed above 13,000 on May 19, 2008. The next day, it crossed under 13,000, not to return for almost four years. It fell as low as 6,547 on March 9, 2009. A reading of 13,094 would double that.
Dan McMahon, director of equity trading at Raymond James, called the 13,000 mark "just a big round number" as a matter of market fundamentals. But he added: "Psychologically, it matters."
The milestone could motivate cautious investors to pump more money back into the stock market. The yield on the government's benchmark 10-year Treasury note rose to 2.06 percent from 2.01 percent Friday, a sign that fewer investors wanted the bonds and were instead willing to buy riskier stocks.
"You need notches along the way to measure things," and Dow 13,000 is as good as any, said John Manley, chief equity strategist for Wells Fargo's funds group. "Is 50 older than 49 and a half? Yes, by six months. Do those six months really make a difference? Probably not. But it does give us a fixed point, something we can look at."
The Dow is also an imperfect measure of the economy's health. It is made up of just 30 companies, and it's weighted so that the few with the highest stock prices carry the most heft.
A small percentage change in the stock of IBM, which is trading around $193, sways the index much more than a large change in the stock of Bank of America, which is trading around $8.
Last year, the Dow rose 5.5 percent. But strip out IBM and McDonald's, the two stocks with the highest prices last year, and it rose just 1.8 percent, according to calculations by Birinyi Associates.
Dow Jones, which decides which 30 companies are the best barometer, says the index can accurately represent the economy because the 30 stocks make up 25 to 30 percent of the market value of all U.S. public companies.
This article was originally published on February 21, 2012.
This program aired on February 21, 2012. The audio for this program is not available.
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