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* Apple boosts tech stocks; Micron leads gains in chipmakers
* Biogen plunges after Alzheimer’s drug trial scrapped
* Levi Strauss surges in return to stock market
* Rate-sensitive banks weakest sector
* Indexes up: Dow 0.84 pct, S&P 1.02 pct, Nasdaq 1.23 pct
By Stephen Culp
NEW YORK, March 21 (Reuters) - Technology stocks surged on Thursday, leading Wall Street higher as jitters over the Federal Reserve’s warning of an economic slowdown were allayed by upbeat economic data.
All three major U.S. stock indexes were in the black, with the Nasdaq set to post its fifth straight advance and the benchmark S&P 500 less than 3 percent below its all-time high set in September.
On Wednesday, the Fed surprised investors with a policy statement that was more dovish than expected, as it forecast no further interest rate hikes this year due to signs of softness in the U.S. economy.
But worries about the central bank’s signals on the economy were calmed by upbeat data on Thursday. In separate reports, initial claims for jobless benefits fell more than expected and mid-Atlantic factory activity rebounded sharply.
“The market is concerned about economic growth, but the Fed stepping to the sidelines is very bullish for risk-takers,” said Doug Cote, chief market strategist at Voya Investment Management in New York. “It’s a delayed market reaction to good news.”
Apple Inc led the tech sector’s advance, rising 4.1 percent ahead of the company’s expected streaming service debut next week. The stock gain returned the iPhone-maker to the top spot of U.S. companies by market value.
Chipmakers also gave technology stocks a jolt after Micron Technology Inc predicted a recovery in the memory market as it reported better-than-expected quarterly earnings. Micron’s stock jumped 8.5 percent.
The Philadelphia SE Semiconductor Index rose 3.5 percent, on track for its biggest percentage gain since late January. The index has surged by nearly 25 percent so far this year.
The Dow Jones Industrial Average rose 217.1 points, or 0.84 percent, to 25,962.77, the S&P 500 gained 28.7 points, or 1.02 percent, to 2,852.93 and the Nasdaq Composite added 95.41 points, or 1.23 percent, to 7,824.37.
Of the 11 major sectors in the S&P 500, all but financials were in positive territory.
Interest rate-sensitive banks were the weakest performers, as the flatting U.S. Treasuries yield curve, combined with the Fed’s prediction of fewer-than-expected rate hikes, put lenders under pressure.
Conagra Brands Inc beat analysts’ quarterly earnings estimates as the packaged food maker raised prices to offset rising costs, sending its shares up 13.3 percent.
Shares of Biogen Inc plunged 29.1 percent after the company announced it would halt late-stage trials for its experimental Alzheimer’s drug.
Shares of Levi Strauss & Co soared 33.2 percent as investors welcomed the iconic jeans maker back to the stock market. The 165-year-old company’s IPO was priced at $17 per share, and the shares were last trading at $22.65.
Ford Motor Co gained 1.5 percent after the automaker announced it was hiring its first outsider as chief financial officer in seven decades.
Advancing issues outnumbered declining ones on the NYSE by a 2.44-to-1 ratio; on Nasdaq, a 1.72-to-1 ratio favored advancers.
The S&P 500 posted 43 new 52-week highs and three new lows; the Nasdaq Composite recorded 73 new highs and 24 new lows. (Reporting by Stephen Culp; Editing by Leslie Adler)