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At midday: S&P 500 up on mixed economic data

U.S. stocks were higher in midday trading on Tuesday, sending the benchmark index close to a record high after failing to make the mark in early gains on Monday. Canadian stocks fell.

The S&P 500 was up 7 points or 0.4 per cent, to 1558. The blue-chip Dow Jones industrial average was up 74 points or 0.5 per cent, to 14,522. In Canada, the S&P/TSX composite index was down 17 points or 0.1 per cent, to 12,664.

The gains follow a tumultuous start to the week, when the S&P 500 came within a quarter point of hitting a record high close, only to end the day lower. Concerns about the unusual bailout in Cyprus, and that it might be used as a template in future bailouts, appeared to weigh on sentiment.

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Tuesday's gains followed mixed U.S. economic news. U.S. home prices showed strength in January. The S&P/Case-Shiller home price index for 20 cities rose 8.1 per cent over last year, up from a 6.8 per cent gain in December and ahead of expectations.

As well, durable goods orders in February rose 5.7 per cent, beating expectations. However, the above-consensus reading was due to volatile transportation orders. Ignoring them, durable goods fell 0.5 per cent, which missed expectations.

The Conference Board's consumer confidence index slumped to a reading of 59.7, down sharply from a revised reading of 68 in February and well below expectations.

Within the S&P 500, defensive areas of the index showed some of the biggest gains. Utilities and health-care stocks rose 0.8 per cent each, while consumer staples rose 0.6 per cent. Energy stocks were also strong, rising 0.7 per cent after the price of crude oil rose above $95 (U.S.) a barrel.

Goldman Sachs Group Inc. fell 0.2 per cent after Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway Inc. said it would convert warrants into common shares, making Berkshire one of Goldman Sachs' largest investors. Berkshire Hathaway "A" shares rose 0.8 per cent.

Within Canada's benchmark index, materials were the biggest laggards, falling 1.2 per cent after gold slipped below $1,600 an ounce. Consumer staples and energy stocks fell 0.1 per cent each. Financials were flat and telecom stocks rose 0.7 per cent.

The Office of the Superintendent of Financial Institutions announced on Tuesday that Canada's six biggest banks are now identified as "domestic systemically important banks." That means they are too big to fail, but the label also means that they will have to maintain high capital levels.

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