Stocks are sharply higher in mid-day trading helped by increased - but cautious - optimism for a solution to sovereign debt problems in Greece and other debt-strapped European countries. Confidence among U.S. consumers also inched to the upside for September - though less than expected.
This morning, the Conference Board said its consumer-confidence index rose to 45.4 in September from 45.2 in August. Economists surveyed by MarketWatch had expected a September reading of 46.1. The August confidence reading was upwardly revised from a prior estimate of 44.5.
Elsewhere, home prices also inched higher according to the Case/Shiller Home Price Index, which showed a 0.9% gain in prices - the fourth straight.
Abroad, investors appeared to focus on a plan where euro-zone officials would set up a special puirpose vehicle to purchase debt issued by distress European governments, which would serve to broaden the European Financial Stability Facility's lending ability, MarketWatch noted in a report.
Also, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou are meeting today in Berlin to discuss Greece's efforts to cut its deficit and secure the next round of international funding, according to news reports.
In company news:
ConocoPhillips ( COP ) shares are higher after the U.S. oil major said it is looking for a buyer for its 185,000 barrel-per-day refinery in Trainer, Pa., and associated pipelines and terminals. ConocoPhillips will immediately begin the process of idling the facility and will permanently close the plant in six months if a sales transaction is unsuccessful. The company expects to recognize a non-cash asset impairment of approximately $300 million after tax in its Q3 financial results.
Shares of Merck & Co. ( MRK ) are higher after the drug maker named Cuong Viet Do, formerly the vice president of corporate strategy and business development at manufacturer at Tyco Electronics, as its chief strategy officer. Do was also with PC maker Lenovo Group. A Reuters reported noted that Do comes to Merck as an outsider to the pharmaceutical industry.
BB&T Corp. ( BBT ) shares are higher after the bank's insurance unit said it would acquire Maryland-based Atlantic Risk Management Corp., MarketWatch reported. The acquisition is BBT's second in a week. On the 22nd, BBT acquired Liberty Benefit Insurance Services of San Jose, CA to expand its California operations. Liberty will operate as BB&T-Liberty Benefit Insurance Services and will add 25 employees to BB&T Insurance Services.
Shares of Motorola Solutions Inc. ( MSI ) are higher, while the U.S. Justice Department and Securities and Exchange Commission are inquiring into whether the company paid bribes to obtain business in Europe, people familiar with the matter told The Wall Street Journal.
Walgreen's ( WAG ) is down after it announced that it fiscal 2012 earnings will be cut because it lost a contract to provide prescriptions for Express Scripts Inc. (ESRX). The company said it expects profits to fall by 21 cents a share for the year. Profit will decline 14 cents if Walgreen loses half of the sales and 7 cents from 25 percent of the sales, said Chief Financial Officer Wade Miquelon this morning. Earlier the company reported Q4 adjusted EPS of $0.57 compared to $0.49 a year earlier and is two cents above the Thomson Reuters mean analyst estimate for $0.55.
Commodities are higher. December gold contracts are rallying up $64 to $1658.80 an ounce, while November crude oil contacts are up 4.2% to $83.66 a barrel.
In energy ETFs, the United States Oil Fund (USO) is up 2.92% to $32.39 and the United States Natural Gas fund (UNG) is up 0.01%, to $9.44.
In precious metal ETFs, the SPDR Gold Trust (GLD) is up 2.06% to $160.82. Market Vectors Gold Miners (GDX) is up 1.74% to $58.36. iShares Silver Trust (SLV) is up 4.11% to $30.99.
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