North American stock markets opened higher, as investors' spirits were buoyed by strong housing and employment data in the U.S. Gains were modest, however, as traders remain cautious about the macroeconomic picture given looming negotiations in the U.S. over the debt ceiling and spending plans.
In early trading, the S&P/TSX composite index was up 13 points, or 0.1 per cent, at 12,622; the S&P 500 was up 3 points, or 0.2 per cent, at 1,476; and the Dow Joes industrial average was up 33 points, or 0.2 per cent, at 13,543. Crude oil was up $1.03 at $95.27 (U.S.) a barrel, but gold was off $12.80 at $1,670 an ounce.
The U.S. Commerce Department said housing starts jumped to a 954,000 annual rate in December, the highest in four years and up from 890,000 the previous month. Building permits were at 903,000. Both figures were in line with analysts' forecasts but gave a boost to the housing sector, with homebuilder PulteGroup Inc. rising nearly 3 per cent to more than five-year highs.
U.S. new jobless claims for last week did beat economists' expectations as they fell to 335,000 from 371,000 the week prior. The Street was looking for a number closer to 368,000.
The economic news wasn't all good. The U.S. Philadelphia Fed Survey's general business conditions index unexpectedly fell to negative 5.8 per cent this month. Economists were looking for a positive 6.0.
In the wee hours of Friday morning, China will release its fourth-quarter GDP report. Expectations are for a 7.8 per cent year-over-year rise, up from 7.4 per cent the prior quarter.
Here's a look at stocks moving on news this morning:
Boeing Co. shares opened down about 1 per cent after the Federal Aviation Administration grounded flights of 787 Dreamliners late Wednesday.
Sun Life Financial Inc. and Malaysian state investor Khazanah are buying the Malaysian insurance joint venture of Britain’s No.2 insurer Aviva PLC and lender CIMB Group for $586-million. Sun Life shares opened up 0.4 per cent on the TSX.
Rio Tinto Ltd. chief executive officer Tom Albanese resigned on Thursday and revealed a $14-billion writedown in connection with his two most significant acquisitions, Canada's Alcan aluminium group and Mozambican coal. U.S.-listed shares are down 0.1 per cent.
Bank of America Corp. earned $700-million (U.S.), or 3 cents a share, in the quarter, compared with a profit of $2-billion, or 15 cents per share, in the same period a year ago. The earnings appeared to be about 1 cent better than estimates but shares are down 1.7 per cent.
Citigroup Inc. shares are down nearly 3 per cent after reporting earnings per share of 69 cents, missing analysts' expectations for 96 cents.
H&R Real Estate Investment Trust announced a friendly $28 per share offer for Primaris Retail Real Estate Investment Trust, just above a hostile $26-a-share bid put forward in December by a consortium led by KingSett Capital. H&R shares opened down 2.5 per cent, while Primaris gained just 0.2 per cent to $26.58.
Herbalife Ltd. shares are down about 4 per cent despite the company, heavily sold short by hedge fund manager Bill Ackman, raising fourth-quarter guidance to just above consensus. It also said it expects to begin repurchasing stock under its existing buyback program.
EBay shares are up 2.5 per cent after the company late Wednesday reported holiday sales that just beat Wall Street expectations but gave a cautious outlook for 2013.