Health care companies pull stock market higher

Published March 22, 2010

NEW YORK – Health stocks lifted the market Monday following House approval of an overhaul bill that would extend insurance to millions.

Investors had expected the health care bill would pass the House, but the approval late Sunday removed uncertainty about the rules that would govern the industry. A companion bill now goes back to the Senate. The changes could have far-reaching effects on health insurers and drug makers.

Stocks opened lower following more doubts about Greece's ability to repay its debt. Concern about the country's fiscal crunch pushed investors into the safety of the dollar. The rising dollar hit shares of energy and commodity producers, who see demand fall when the dollar strengthens.

The latest concern is that Greece might not get the outside financial support it has been seeking. The country's debt woes have dragged down the market off and on for nearly two months as the country tries to cut its budget and is looking for outside support.

The gains in health stocks overshadowed questions about Greece. Health stocks rose in part because the bill passed by the House will extend benefits to 32 million uninsured Americans. That means increased business for insurers and drug makers. Many of the key points of the bill will not go into effect for several years.

"You've got some uncertainty here lifted," said Jack Ablin, chief investment officer at Harris Private Bank in Chicago. Ablin noted, however, that other industries will face higher costs to pay for wider coverage. "What it really comes down to is that as a result of this bill health care is a beneficiary at the expense of every other sector."

In midday trading, the Dow Jones industrial average rose 36.81, or 0.3 percent, to 10,778.79. The Standard & Poor's 500 index rose 4.08, or 0.4 percent, to 1,163.98, while the Nasdaq composite index rose 14.63, or 0.6 percent, to 2,389.04.

Bond prices rose, pushing down yields. The yield on the benchmark 10-year Treasury note fell to 3.67 percent from 3.70 percent late Friday.

The dollar strengthened against the euro and other major currencies. Gold fell.

Crude oil fell 5 cents to $80.63 per barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange.

Major stock indexes dropped Friday because of renewed concerns about Greece. The Dow fell 0.3 percent, while the S&P 500 dropped 0.5 percent.

Stocks had been rising steadily in recent weeks as investors grew more confident in an economic rebound following a string of economic reports that showed mild improvement. Reports on home sales, durable goods orders and weekly jobless claims are due later in the week. The government will also provide its final reading on the nation's gross domestic product from the fourth quarter.

Questions about Greece arose again when Germany's chancellor said Sunday that a bailout for Greece won't be discussed at a European summit this week. Greece has said in recent days if other European countries do not provide support, it might turn to the International Monetary Fund for help.

Investors are worried that Greece and other European nations that use the euro, like Spain and Portugal, could struggle to recover as they try to pay down steep debt. That could upend a global economic recovery.

Among health stocks, drug maker Pfizer Inc. rose 32 cents to $17.23, while insurer Aetna Inc. rose 38 cents to $34.84.

Advancing stocks narrowly outpaced those that fell on the New York Stock Exchange, where volume came to 367.2 million shares, compared with 851.3 million traded at the same point Friday. Trading was heavy because of the expiration of options and futures contracts.

Energy and commodities stocks fell. Chevron Corp. fell 47 cents to $74.51, while Barrick Gold Corp. fell 32 cents to $39.10.

The Russell 2000 index of smaller companies rose 3.92, or 0.6 percent, to 677.81.

Overseas, Britain's FTSE 100 fell 0.2 percent, Germany's DAX index dropped 0.1 percent, and France's CAC-40 fell 0.2 percent. Japan's Nikkei was closed for a holiday.

Written by STEPHEN BERNARD and TIM PARADIS, AP Business Writers

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