Wall Street moved sharply higher Wednesday after the Commerce Department reported an unexpected increase in retail sales last month, easing...

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NEW YORK — Wall Street moved sharply higher Wednesday after the Commerce Department reported an unexpected increase in retail sales last month, easing concerns about consumers’ willingness to spend despite economic uncertainty.

The Dow Jones industrial average rose 178.83 to 12,552.24. It was the third day in a row the Dow ended with a gain — a first for 2008.

Microsoft, one of the 30 Dow stocks, added 62 cents to close at $28.96 a share. Boeing, also a Dow stock, gained $1.92 to $85.48.

Broader indexes also rose. The Standard & Poor’s 500 index added 18.35 to 1,367.21, and the Nasdaq composite rose 53.89 to 2,373.93.

The 0.3 percent rise in January retail sales, which followed a drop during December, alleviated some of the market’s worries that consumers were retrenching because of rising fuel prices, a faltering real-estate sector and a choppy stock market. Analysts had expected a 0.3 percent decline in January sales.

Stocks have mostly risen in recent days as investors tried to determine whether Wall Street has reached a bottom or whether further sluggishness in the economy will send stocks lower.

“So far this week there has been a positive bias, but I think what you’re seeing is people taking a very cautious approach,” said Scott Fullman, director of investment strategy at I.A. Englander. “There is no great rush to jump in, and the preservation of capital is more important than growth at this moment.”

Michael Strauss, chief economist at CommonFund, said he’ll be listening today to see if Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke makes any projections about the housing market when he testifies before a Senate committee on banking and housing at 7 a.m. PST.

“I think Bernanke will be grilled more on housing, and one of the things he’ll focus on is that the housing sector has had a much bigger impact on the economy than the Fed anticipated it would have,” Strauss said. “The question is whether he dangles a carrot, and maybe even praises Congress, about the fiscal-stimulus package.”