Wall Street moved sharply higher today after the Commerce Department reported an unexpected increase in retail sales last month and eased...

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NEW YORK — Wall Street moved sharply higher today after the Commerce Department reported an unexpected increase in retail sales last month and eased some 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 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 moved higher. 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.

However, another report from the department showed that U.S. business inventories grew a little more than expected in December. The data could be a sign of an involuntary buildup of unsold goods on store shelves amid the economic slowdown.

The data was not enough to offset optimism during the session. 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.”

He also said investors were encouraged by the government’s latest plan to help homeowners falling behind on mortgage payments. U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson said today he believes the economy will remain on a growth path, and pledged “aggressive action” to help troubled homeowners.

Analysts said the market will likely be choppy as investors react to economic data through the next several weeks. Most important will be any reports that provide clues about the slumping housing market.

Michael Strauss, chief economist at CommonFund, said he’ll be listening Thursday morning to see if Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke makes any projections about the housing market. Bernanke is scheduled to provide testimony before a Senate committee on banking and housing at 10 a.m. Eastern time.

“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.”

President Bush today signed a multibillion-dollar economic rescue package that means $300 to $1,200 rebates for many American households.

In corporate news, Coca-Cola said its fourth-quarter earnings jumped 79 percent amid a 24 percent increase in revenue. The world’s biggest beverage producer cited growth in its key soft-drink brands as well as in its water, sports drink and orange juice businesses. But Coke fell 53 cents to $59.39.

Applied Materials, the largest maker of semiconductor equipment, led technology stocks higher after it reported a surge in orders for machines that make flat screens. Shares of the company rose $1.84 to $19.91.

Deere & Co. said fiscal first-quarter profit increased 54 percent as the heavy equipment maker posted strong international sales. However, shares fell 94 cents to $85.54.

Waste Management rose 91 cents to $34.04 after reporting its fourth-quarter earnings increased 26 percent. The nation’s largest garbage hauler got a bounce from tax benefits and the sale of some operations. However, fuel prices ate into profits.

Also, the state oil company of Venezuela said it has halted sales of crude to Exxon Mobil in response to the U.S. company’s drive to use the courts to seize billions of dollars in Venezuelan assets. The oil company rose 79 cents to $85.17.

Advancing issues led decliners by a 2 to 1 margin on the New York Stock Exchange, where volume came to 995.2 million shares.

Overseas, Japan’s Nikkei stock average closed up 0.2 percent. In afternoon trading, Britain’s FTSE 100 fell 0.5 percent, Germany’s DAX index rose 0.1 percent, and France’s CAC-40 rose 0.3 percent.